State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

A year after Hurricane Irene, utilities tally lessons learned

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Aug 28, 2012 9:52 PM

This time last year, eastern Pennsylvanians were battening down the hatches.

Wind and water from Hurricane Irene caused more than 700,000 people to lose power at the height of the storm.  Before it was over, more than a million people had experienced an outage.

Some called their local emergency management center.  Some went online to find information on power companies’ websites.  Some called their power company. 

Many were none the wiser for their efforts.

“They either got a busy signal, they got dropped calls, hung up on-kind-of-thing, and so that was one of the biggest frustrations,” said Jennifer Kocher, spokeswoman for the Public Utility Commission.  “People understood that these weather were unprecedented, it was just an inability of the utilities to handle the call volume that we received.”

The PUC’s review of power companies’ response to outages began last fall.  At an October hearing in Harrisburg, company representatives pledged to consider improvements to their infrastructure and beef up their social media presence.  By this point, said Kocher, all the major electric companies (PPL, PECO, First Energy) throughout the state should be using some social media platform to alert customers about outages.  It was an explicit recommendation from the PUC.  

“Either a Facebook page or a Twitter account or some way to communicate with people on a social media level,” said Kocher.  “The other thing that it means is having web sites that are compatible with mobile devices.”

Kocher said in the wake of last fall’s dismal customer service, utilities have also been boning up on how to handle a deluge of customer inquiries.  Some of them have even met with QVC, the television shopping channel, to learn how to deal with sudden spikes in telephone calls.

The PUC is also imposing additional regulations on companies – mostly in the form of reporting requirements that allow the agency to track power outages.  It’s also closely monitoring utilities’ plans to minimize tree limbs that could pose a hazard to wires – a big problem last year, and one that caused repeat outages. 

Published in State House Sound Bites

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