Baltimore Gas and Electric executives received an earful from Laurel officials at an Oct. 13 briefing that focused on the utility company's response to local power outages following Hurricane Irene in September.
Laurel officials asked BGE executives to appear before the city's Emergency Services Commission to discuss storm-related lengthy power outages in the city; a lack of communication between utility representatives and local emergency responders during and after the storm, and the slow removal of trees throughout the city that were downed by intense storm winds.
Laurel Mayor Craig Moe sent a letter to BGE's president prior to the meeting, expressing concerns about the company's response to the widespread power outages and other problems that resulted following the intense storm.
"I was frustrated by BGE's inaction and felt it was important to have this review to see what went wrong and how to improve and resolve the issues," Moe said. "There was a lot of frustration in the field and we had parts of the city with no power, but when we would call BGE, we'd be told things were OK."
Martin Flemion, the city's emergency services director, criticized the utility company for its crews committing safety violations and not being as vigilant as they should have been at incident sites. He said they were also slow to respond to a large downed tree in the 300 block of Montgomery Street during the storm, which took down power lines and left the entire block without power. Because Montgomery Street is a major thoroughfare for emergency service and police vehicles, Flemion said BGE was made aware that having the tree removed was a top priority for local emergency responders.
"Our experience with BGE over two decades has been outstanding…but this time, there were a series of missteps," Flemion said. "We thought their crew would be there (on Montgomery) within an hour to determine if the wires were still hot and we had mobilized our tree contractors, but they (the tree cutters) waited for three hours and had to leave for other jobs. Three different times, the wrong BGE crews came."
According to Flemion, Laurel crews secured the street to keep pedestrians and vehicles out of the area, and ended up using a "master electrician" to test the downed power lines to determine if they were still hot.
"We had no choice because BGE's safety team didn't arrive until three hours after we'd secured the area. We told BGE we had to secure the lines ourselves, cut the tree and opened the street up," Flemion said.
City says communication was poor
But city officials said the most significant incident they faced during the storm was an inability to communicate with BGE officials about residents without power who had special health and other types of needs. Flemion said at one point in the days following the storm, "boisterous" residents showed up at his office, demanding information about the continuing power outages.
BGE officials described Irene as one of the most damaging storms the utility has had to deal with because the large number of entire trees that fell, together with felled tree limbs, led to hundreds of road closures.
Darryl Stokes, a BGE vice president, said they had more than 6,700 people on hand, but more than 17,000 service jobs. He said those service jobs included 10,000 reports of downed wires, 247 nonfunctioning transformers, 730,000 feet of wire and 8,200 fuses that needed to be replaced, 1,300 locations of downed trees, and 750,000 customers with service interruptions.
"In Laurel, 23 percent (1,574) of the city's customer base lost power, compared to 65 percent of most counties, and 70 percent of Laurel customers had their power restored within three days," Stokes said. "Once the storm cleared, public safety was the first thing we focused on such as hospital centers, 911 calls and pumping facilities."
BGE spokesman Mike Fowler added that after the storm, some of the crews from other areas who came to assist BGE crews had to pull out because their home bases also experienced storm damages. But for city officials, that did not explain the difficulty local emergency responders had in trying to contact BGE officials for updates on power outages during and after the storm.
"We usually enjoy a relationship with BGE where we get updates. The county did, but we weren't privy to them," Flemion said.
H. Edward Ricks, chairman of the Emergency Services Commission, added, "You weren't even answering the telephones, so we couldn't get to first base. We need to establish a number where people like Marty (Flemion) can call and get information, good or bad, and pass on to the mayor and others."
Ervin McDaniel, BGE's liaison and investigations director, told city officials that part of the communications problem involved Verizon lines being down, which prevented calls from coming through. But he did acknowledge that the company's normal processes of responding to major storms need to be improved and agreed that the utility needs a "dedicated way for municipalities to contact us. We'll work toward that."
'Gap' in media coverage
City officials pointed out that because Laurel residents only have access to Washington's television stations, which mainly covered Pepco's outages, they felt out of the loop in terms of updates on BGE's outages and restoration of service, which were broadcast mainly by the Baltimore TV stations.
"That's a challenge for us. We're considered in the Baltimore market, but we have customers in Prince George's, which the Baltimore stations don't report on. We've tried to engage the D.C. media to report on us, and we know that's a gap to be filled that we're trying to work out," said Fowler.
Commission member Robert DiPietro suggested that BGE take advantage of the many emergency services Laurel has available that could be used to provide information to residents on power outages and fixes.
"We have a great phone system (that was manned 24 hours during the storm) and cable studio here that we could do broadcasts for you on outage updates to help you do your job better," DiPietro said. "We're never going to beat Mother Nature, but this communication thing is key to the process, and Laurel has to be a part of your process. We should plan for worst-case scenarios and take advantage of Laurel's strong emergency network."
Moe agreed and added, "We have volunteer forces, CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) and other assets that can help get information out from BGE, door-to-door or whatever.
"We can give you your own spot in our EOC (Emergency Operations Center). It's a regional EOC, and you could have a spot with computers and everything wired for cable and other things to do press conferences," Moe said.
At the end of the meeting, both sides said they were pleased with the discussions and would schedule additional talks to focus on ways BGE can communicate and respond better to local officials and residents during power outages. Fowler also invited Laurel officials to participate in BGE's severe-impact storm drill later this month.