So, as anyone who’s turned on a news show in the last week has undoubtedly heard, we had a little snow here last weekend. (To recap for those who don’t know: October snowstorm hit Oct. 29: very unusual, leaves still on the trees thanks to a very wet summer, weight of snow took trees and branches down all over northern New Jersey, the Hudson Valley, Connecticut, central Massachusetts and New Hampshire.) And yes, my house has been without power since last Saturday evening — five days and counting, at this point. For those keeping score at home, that’s longer by a full day than the power outage following Hurricane Irene.
Now, I get that this was a major event, and that it takes time to find all the downed trees and branches and to get tree guys there to cut the branches away before utility workers can fix the wires. And I get that there are many, many hardworking utility crews and tree crews here from as far away as Florida and Michigan, who have been on the job virtually 24/7 since the roads were clear enough to let them through. So this rant is not about them (and in fact, if you see any of them in your travels, you could wave and say thank you, or buy them a coffee).
No, this rant is about the company they work for, Jersey Central Power and Light, which has seriously let those crews down (not to mention its customers). During the aftermath of both Hurricane Irene and this October snowstorm, the company has proven that it is up to neither the task of addressing an incident of this magnitude, nor the task of gathering and communicating information about it.
As I said, I get that this was a major disaster for power companies. And the other major power company in northern New Jersey, Public Service Electric and Gas, seems to be well on its way to 100% restoration. Not so JCP&L, which still has more than 25% of its outages unrestored five days later. When asked about the discrepancy in speed of response, JCP&L representatives have been quoted by municipal officials who have been involved in daily update conference calls with them as saying they “didn’t plan for anything of this magnitude right after [Hurricane] Irene.”
EXCUSE ME? Are they really saying that as a public utility they don’t have a disaster playbook ready to go, and they don’t drill for it periodically? They don’t review best practices from utilities in other locations that have to deal with similar incidents — utilities in Canada and New England that have to deal with ice storms, for example? Utilities in the south that have to deal with hurricanes? Are they really saying they’re flying blind, and not even learning from their own previous experience? Really?
No Communications Plan
I think I’m not alone in being willing to cut the utilities some slack here given the size of the job at hand. Most people are willing to wait, and to help, if they can get a clear idea of what’s going on. Unfortunately, JCP&L has dropped the ball here too. Consider for a moment its “outage map:” not zoomable, with outage numbers that open in a static spreadsheet and are updated once or twice a day. Compare that with the utility company I had when I lived in Washington, D.C., for example: interactive map, zoomable to and searchable by a specific address, updated close to real-time, and with the added bonus of indicating where crews are currently working.
In addition, JCP&L’s outage map appears to indicate not the number of customers actually without power, but the number of customers who took the time to report an outage. (My town, for example, was originally listed as having two outages. That would be my next-door neighbor and me. No mention of the rest of the houses just on our road. And, coincidentally or not, that is exactly the same number as was listed after Hurricane Irene.)
What this suggests to me is that either JCP&L doesn’t really know how many customers are without power, a troubling thought; or that they do know but choose instead to make public the lower number of those who actually report an outage, an even more troubling thought. Either way, it’s not satisfactory. And the fact that they can’t show on the map where crews are working suggests that they’ve chosen either not to issue, or to issue but not reflect the usage of, GPS transponders in their crews’ trucks.
Their social media efforts were no better. Their Twitter feed is all outbound communications, with no interaction with customers and very infrequent updates given the severity of the problem. A search on Facebook and an examination of their website seems to indicate they have no Facebook presence at all. (Again, compare with Pepco’s Twitter feed and Facebook page.)
My point is this: The technology exists to be able to let customers know exactly what the status is at any given time, and to interact with them and provide customer service. The information may not be what customers want to hear, but JCP&L would do itself a lot less damage by being transparent and honest than it has done by providing outdated, inaccurate and incomplete information and by being unwilling to engage with its customers.
And speaking of technology: I heard anecdotally the other day that the reason it was taking so long to get my town back online was that they hadn’t yet found the downed wires that needed to be repaired. “They’re under a tree someplace; JCP&L just doesn’t know where” is what I was told. Again: anecdotal, so grain of salt suggested, but if that is true, it also means JCP&L has not invested in the smart-grid sensor technology that would let them know much more specifically where an outage or a problem was. Without that, crews pretty much have to ride every line in the township until they find one that needs fixing. (Hello, Glen Campbell?) No wonder it’s taking so long.
So, as you might have gathered, I’m kind of out of patience. Kudos to all the crews working so hard; and whenever my power comes on, thank you. I just wish you were working for a company worthy of your efforts.