Unitil Learns from Mistakes

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Changes to Storm Response in the Works

By Michael McCord

Hampton Union, Friday, February 13, 2009

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
HAMPTON -- In one of his first extended interviews since the historic December 2008 ice storm, Unitil Senior Vice President George Gantz said the utility would be releasing its storm report in the next few weeks.

The comprehensive report, Gantz said, will detail its efforts to deal with the catastrophic event — and the lessons learned about how to communicate better with customers and public officials.

"This is a very high priority for us in 2009," he said.

Gantz acknowledged the company took a public relations hit and that many of its customers were frustrated by lack of information about when service might be restored. He said the devastating breadth and depth of the storm was unlike what anyone in the region had ever experienced.

"We learned that customers were calling and asking for a level of specificity that we simply could not give," Gantz said. "Our early (repair completion) expectations all proved to be wrong, and we know this was a source of significant frustration for customers and public officials."

Gantz said that, at its worst, the storm of Dec. 11-12, left more than 41,000 out of its 75,000 New Hampshire customers without power — some for more than a week. That included two-thirds of those in the Hampton and Exeter area.

In the central Massachusetts city of Fitchburg, 100 percent of customers of a Unitil subsidiary were left without power, some for more than two weeks. Gantz said it was almost five times higher than the largest outage Unitil had ever confronted and, unlike normal repair from a major storm event, it took five times the crews and work hours to fix the damage.

"We saw employees pushing themselves beyond the point of exhaustion," Gantz said about the effort of Unitil workers and utility crews from out-of-state to rebuild large parts of its transmission system almost from scratch. "It was an unbelievable heroic effort on the part of the people and done under dangerous, hazardous conditions."

The current destruction from the recent ice storm in Kentucky, which left large portions of that state without power for days, was an example of the devastation wrought by the December storm. Gantz said Unitil, like other utilities in the state and region, was prepared for a major event with the December storm, but nothing like what occurred.

The estimated cost to the company for rebuilding its system is $10 million, the Unitil vice president said.

"We had all three of our coverage areas hit badly," said Gantz. "The nature of the damage itself was in some areas unbelievably devastating with whole trees were collapsing on lines well outside of the trim zone."

Gantz said the transmission system was damaged or damaged at the home level where individual circuits often were ripped from houses by weight of ice on lines or on falling trees. Crucial primary and sub-transmission circuits were destroyed in numerous areas, and that hampered efforts to accurately assess the extent of the overall damage.

It was difficult to contract and deploy all the outside crews necessary because of the storm's region-wide devastation, he said.

The maintenance work the company had done previously was not an issue, Gantz said.

"The conclusion we have come to is that the extent of damage was not due to poor infrastructure or maintenance deficiencies," he said. "It was weight of the material — the ice — that brought down the trees and lines."

He admitted Unitil's call center in Concord was overwhelmed by the volume of customer calls.

"We had never been able to visualize an event that would overwhelm our call center," he said. "We have taken steps to improve our call center capability with a larger trunk line and the ability to turn all our phones into an extension of the call center."

Public Service of New Hampshire released its report on the ice storm earlier this week, and Gantz said Unitil's report would be equally detailed. The utility is already applying lessons it had learned, he said.

"We were better prepared for the storm that hit Jan. 6 and 7," he said about the communication established with local officials. "We are looking at significant investments to provide better data and information. We've designed an emergency information center and special 800 numbers for public officials to access and share information as well with local communities."

Gantz said the company was cooperating fully with the investigations by the Public Utilities Commission in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. He said he hopes lawmakers will consider new legislation about tree trimming practices that might help alleviate some problems. He also said Unitil was looking forward to getting more public input.

"It's obvious we came out of this having to do better in informing the public the best we can," Gantz said. "The input from customers is part of the process so we can know how they feel, and we're listening for what things that caused them to feel that way.

"We want to know what we can fix," Gantz said.

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