Westchester Legislator Shimsky Calls for Major Improvements to Storm Emergency Response


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Westchester Legislator Shimsky Calls for Major Improvements to Storm Emergency Response

White Plains, NY – Westchester County Legislator MaryJane Shimsky (D-Hastings-on-Hudson) called for major improvements to storm emergency response last night during a public hearing of the Moreland Commission on Utility Storm Preparation and Response held at Purchase College’s Performing Arts Center.

In her stated testimony to the Moreland Commission, Legislator Shimsky addressed three substantive issues: labor supply, organization and communication.

The full text of Legislator Shimsky’s statement is below:

First, I would like to thank the Moreland Commission for holding this hearing in Westchester County. Westchester was not the worst-hit area in the region by Hurricane Sandy, but the proper functioning of our people, and our economy, was compromised by lengthy — and avoidable — service outages. With two different utilities, and a variety of urban and suburban settings in this County, the Commission can learn a lot about what works — and what doesn’t — by studying our experience.

As an elected official, and as a consumer whose own neighborhood lost power for over 72 hours, I can draw on my experience, and that of my constituents. Moreover, my extensive contacts with Con Ed employees in the weeks after the storm has raised many questions in my mind about how well organized and prepared Con Ed was, and about what might improve the utility’s response to future catastrophic storms. And in an era in which even the most rabid global warming deniers are now forced to admit that our climate is changing in dramatic and disturbing ways, there will be more Sandys, and our utility companies must become better prepared to deal with those challenges.

I would like to address three different substantive issues: labor supply, organization and communication.

Utility companies have reduced costs, and therefore increased profits for their shareholders, by reducing their own payrolls by cutting jobs and relying instead on “mutual aid” from other utility companies many hundreds of miles, and even thousands of miles, away. After Hurricane Sandy, it took crews and their equipment as long as four or five days to arrive on the scene; those crews then had to be trained on Con Ed’s infrastructure, which took an additional day or so; and the crews’ lack of familiarity with the area reduced their productivity, as they often found themselves lost in an area with few grid plans, in which even a GPS can be less than helpful.

It is therefore critical that our local utilities replenish their local labor supplies. There are ways of doing this short of adding permanent workers to their payrolls, though that would probably be optimal from a service delivery point of view. One of my local mayors suggested training a cadre of municipal employees with the appropriate background to help with determining which downed wires are live, and which are not. This would be a huge help in some of our more wooded areas, where roads were rendered impassible by downed trees for many days, and municipal crews could not clear them, until the utility got its crews there. In many of those cases, people had no safe way out of their homes, yards or neighborhoods. Such conditions create potentially life-threatening situations, especially if the sick or injured cannot be brought to hospitals.

Frustratingly, municipal public works crews were sometimes left waiting at their posts to clear key roads, because there were not enough crews to check the downed lines, and depower the live wires lying on the ground or tangled in the trees. It might also be useful to consider reinforcing the ranks of local line crews, who are needed in droves to deal with all of our overhead wires, with local contract employees, taken from the ranks of relevant trades or retired line workers, and provide them with regular training, much the way governments do with election inspectors. This will help to boost employment here, at home; and it will reduce the cost of bringing in crews for less severe weather events. But most importantly, those crews will speed up the restoration of mobility and power after storms like Sandy.

Second, I’d like to address the issue of organization. In dealing with a major crisis, a clear chain of command and distribution of responsibility is a must. But my dealings with Con Ed and local officials during the post-Sandy period left me convinced that the organizational flow chart was being improvised. I recognize that flexibility in such situations is needed to some extent, but without a sound foundation on which to try variations, experimentation can easily turn into chaos. The excuse we all often heard—“This storm is unprecedented!”—only went so far when anyone who watched The Weather Channel had a pretty good idea of what was coming, well in advance; and in any event, that excuse will no longer work post-Sandy. Now is the time to learn the lessons about how better to organize staff and information flow, before the next Sandy.

“Problems of organization were not only vertical, but were also horizontal. Several days after the storm, crews were moved back and forth over relatively wide areas, which wasted time in transit. It also risked getting crews unfamiliar with the area lost and wasted fuel in the face of an impending gas shortage. I would guess that someone in management decided that, for whatever reason, one street in Chappaqua became a bigger priority than the Village of Hastings for a few hours on that Wednesday or Thursday. But questions of priorities need to take into account conditions on the ground, because if the object is to get as many customers back on line as quickly as possible, bouncing crews around wastes precious work time, not to mention fuel.

As Week One wore on, our local governments were assigned liaisons, and Con Ed employees who were embedded with the local governments. This was a good idea, but the results varied a great deal. The wide variation in performance needs to be studied as to determine where the problems lay.

Finally, there were really no clear channels of communication, uniformly established and executed throughout the system. There were serious problems with communication in both directions. Some of this was due to the terrible performance of Con Ed’s computerized reporting and mapping system, along with the lack of sufficient live staff to take calls: the result was that it could take days just to report an outage in a residence or business. But staff organization was a contributing factor as well. It sometimes seemed as if no one even knew which areas were without power, or how many crews were on the ground, and where.

The first Saturday after the storm, I was on consecutive conference calls for officials, and the same questions were answered in wildly inconsistent ways on each. The performance of municipal liaisons, which I assume were created in part to make sure information flowed in both directions, was uneven. I know that many of my colleagues will deal with the issue of inaccurate time estimates for power restoration, and how that adversely affected customers, especially as the weather turned cold. But a secondary communication problem was created when the County asked how long customers with electricity might expect to be depowered for needed repairs. Officials were told that it would be for no more than an hour or two, but many customers sometimes had to wait overnight or longer, just as the weather was getting cold. Coherent systems for disseminating and receiving accurate information, both technological and interpersonal, must be planned now.

Moreover, someone needs to look into the question of why so many Con Ed employees, from line crews to telephone operators, blamed slow restoration times on local governments’ failure to clear downed trees—which could not be done until Con Ed made sure the wires were safe, as I have already mentioned.

Given current climate trends, we can count on having to deal with widespread power outages due to severe storms in the future. Corporations, whose main goal is to generate profit for shareholders, cannot be trusted to perform in-depth studies and implement systemic improvements. It is the job of government to make sure that the utilities do everything possible to minimize service disruptions for its customers. I wish the Moreland Commission success in performing its fact-finding and in developing recommendations needed to keep New York functioning.


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Bazzo 01/26/13

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