Damage-control steps ordered in wake of Isabel

Sun Staff

In the wake of widespread power outages last fall from Tropical Storm Isabel, the Maryland Public Service Commission has ordered the state's utilities to take preventive steps aimed at reducing damage from storms and to improve communication with both emergency agencies and the public.

Isabel, one of the worst storms to strike this area in at least 50 years, left more than a million Marylanders without electricity in mid-September, some for more than a week.

In its June 4 order, the PSC told utilities to work on a plan to manage privately owned trees near power lines and to do a better job in educating the public about the hazards of planting trees close to utility rights-of way.

It also instructed them to work with local government and homeowner groups to selectively bury power lines to make service more reliable.

The commission also ordered the state's utilities to improve coordination of storm restoration efforts with emergency agencies and asked utilities to give emergency management agencies written plans regarding programs for customers on life support equipment.

The PSC singled out Potomac Electric Power Co. and its affiliate Conectiv, which faced the harshest criticism from customers and public officials in the aftermath of last September's storm.

Pepco, which serves customers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and Conectiv, which serves customers on the Eastern Shore and in Harford County, will now be required to submit quarterly reports updating the commission on changes and testing of their outage management systems. The first reports will be due June 15.

Blackout drew criticism

Utilities came in for widespread criticism for the time it took to restore power after the storm. Pepco, in particular, had said its outage management system, which takes calls reporting outages and tracks the information, failed to work as intended.

The utilities defended their performance, saying advance planning, improved technology and the assistance of hundreds of out-of-state crews helped them repair the damage under extraordinary circumstances.

Overall, "Maryland utilities have increased their responsiveness to major storm [and potentially other incident-related] outages since the Tropical Storm Floyd experience in 1999," the commission said in its report.

But utilities need to improve the way in which they communicate with local emergency management agencies, customers and the media, the report said.

Meetings ordered

In its order, the commission is directing each utility and the PSC's engineering division to meet by Aug. 1 with the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, then later with each local emergency management agency in a given utility's service area to discuss how utilities and local emergency officials can better collaborate during storms.

"This order focuses on the need for improvement in communication between the public and private sector in these major events," said Commissioner J. Joseph "Max" Curran III. "We in the past have focused on infrastructure, making sure we have the proper information system within the utilities to efficiently manage a response. Where we failed in the past is to focus on the need for stronger communication between utilities and emergency management agencies in the local jurisdictions.

"We think the utilities did a pretty good job on pre-mobilizing and doing the restoration work," he said. "What the utilities weren't as strong on was the need to get reliable, relevant ... information about restoration activity to the emergency folks so they can deploy their resources."

The commission also is ordering its own engineering staff and the electric utilities to continue meeting with the Maryland Electric Reliability Tree Trimming Council, made up of representatives of the utilities, the state Department of Natural Resources and others.

The PSC is asking the group to come up with a recommendation for how to manage privately owned trees that are otherwise healthy but could pose a danger in storms because of their proximity to power lines.

During Isabel, utilities reported that most outages were caused by entire trees falling onto electric lines from outside the utilities' rights of way.

Theresa Czarski, the deputy people's counsel, whose office represents residential electric customers, said the PSC order incorporated many of the suggestions the Office of People's Counsel made during two days of hearing in December before the PSC.

"We're encouraged about seeing the continued and stressed emphasis on communication and outreach to the consumers," Czarski said yesterday.

'People ... in the dark'

"The commission ... realized that a lot of what happens is people are left in the dark and they don't get the proper communication before and during the event."

She said she also hopes the emphasis on tree trimming will help reduce future outages.

"Everyone has got to work to educate the population about the impact some trees can have when they're even anywhere close to the utility rights of way," said Czarski, of the Office of People's Counsel. "We can't force people to do anything with those trees, but we can educate them about planting the trees."

Stephen J. Woerner, BGE manager of electric system operations and planning, said the order formalizes some steps the utility already has begun taking, such as meeting with emergency management officials for the state and the counties that BGE serves.

Some progress

Those meetings have so far resulted in work on a communication system in which the utility can keep state emergency officials informed of outages on a near real-time basis.

"I don't want to see false expectations that we'll make hurricanes go away overnight, but customers should count on us doing just as well if not better," than during Isabel, Woerner said.

Officials at Pepco were still reviewing the PSC order yesterday, but said it appeared to echo many of the recommendations of the Witt report, a Pepco-commissioned analysis of the utility's storm response by James Lee Witt Associates, headed by the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"It seems to endorse the findings of the Witt report, and we've already implemented many of its recommendations and are in the process of implementing the rest of them," including elevating the task of emergency preparedness to the executive level at the company and improving the way the utility notifies customers of power restoration, said Robert Dobkin, a Pepco spokesman.

The utilities had filed storm reports with the PSC last October, then went before the commission during two days of hearings in December to answer questions.

The PSC based its findings on those hearings and self-assessment reports filed by the utilities.

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