What we have here is a failure to communicate

(I should point out, coincidently, and in testament to how obvious the headline choice is, the Courant chose a similar headline. I started writing this before I saw the Courant article, for the record. :-) )

I had a rather animated conversation with a friend today about CL&P’s performance during this most recent storm. I won’t bore you with the whole thing, but there are a few things I wanted to open up to a broader conversation. At this point, my focus is about how to ensure that people aren’t surprised, frustrated and without power the next time weather happens.

My expectation as a customer is that they have a plan to:

  1. … maintain the lines during normal times to minimize potential damage from a weather event.
  2. … repair the lines quickly, including how to get additional crews in if necessary
  3. … coordinate repairs with town leaders around the state

Reporting about the outage has called into question CL&P’s effectiveness on all three aspects. The Times published an article this weekend calling into question the maintenance budgeting at CL&P and planning. Even better was this anecdote from our own Mayor Slifka in the Courant:

In West Hartford this week, when the electric company was refusing to tell town leaders what streets its crews were going to be working on, officials came up with their own improvised solution. Municipal leaders sent town police over to CL&P’s staging area at Westfarms mall in the evening to ask the crews themselves where they would be heading to work the next day.

This isn’t neurotic small town bureaucrats overreacting. This information is critical during an emergency, when fire and rescue personnel must know what streets are passable. Already, one elderly West Hartford woman without power died in a fire at her home this week.

So what did CL&P do when they found out West Hartford police were tracking down where crews were going to work?

They told their workers not to talk to the cops. Now there’s a company that cares.

The communication issues seem unforgivable. No one has come up with a plausible reason why CL&P couldn’t tell the towns where their crews would be, or in what order they were approaching the work. Either they didn’t have a plan or central coordination, or they put their corporate image above the safety of citizens. That’s basically it.

There’s going to be an investigation into CL&P’s performance, so maybe we’ll find out more about how they stack up to other utilities. Regardless, though, the episode has raised an alternate option that we should consider.

I think it’s time to consider organizing our utilities differently. For example, the way we handle water here in West Hartford is via a public/private corporation. With the MDC, we have pooled together resources with several surrounding towns and cities in order to provide water to our citizens via a non-profit corporation. The city of Norwich has run their own public utility corporation (for profit) for over 100 years. We let governments at all levels maintain roads, airports, and other infrastructure. In my mind, the lines that carry telephone, cable, and Internet (particularly at the local level – the last mile networks) should be like roads – shared, impartially maintained where private companies compete to provide us service. I don’t see why power lines, especially at the local level, should be any different. In all of these cases, you break monopolies, accelerate the competition from private vendors for new products and solutions, and bring accountability closer to the customer. At least the mayor won’t have to send out the police to chat up crews to find out details about the repair efforts.

These seem like good things. There are certainly going to be tradeoffs. Curious how everyone else feels about something like this.

If you’re interested in learning more, the Colin McEnroe show covered this topic today, including a few towns that converted their transmission functions to a public agency or a public/private corporation. I caught part of it this afternoon, looking forward to listening to the rest later tonight (after the Eagles game – Go Eagles!)