In the wake of Irene and the October 29th snowstorm, public officials throughout Bergen County have been asking state legislators to hold utility companies responsible for communicating real-time information in an effort to provide their constituents with answers.
The goal of the meeting was to establish protocol that will open the lines of communication between public officials and the utility companies during times of severe weather emergencies.
In attendance were Councilwoman Ila Kasofsky and Councilman Harvey Sohmer from Fort Lee whose town, like New Milford, Teaneck and every other Bergen County town, suffered major power outages during Irene and the October snow storm.
One topic of discussion was the continual flooding of the located in a low lying flood-prone area at the bottom of Henley Street in New Milford. Power outages caused by the flooding of this substation are frustrating to both homeowners and businesses that continually contend with flooding because sump pumps are useless without power.
Local officials and representatives expressed frustration with the lack of communication between PSEG and local officials during the outages. They also accused the utility of failing to mobilize crews in a timely manner and establishing a plan to import additional repair crews prior to a .
Officials stated that because PSEG was not effectively communicating how long power would be out, towns were hesitant to transport people to county shelters.
“Information wasn’t coming fast enough,” Sohmer reported. “We couldn’t get information to our constituents who were looking to us for answers as to when they could expect their power to return.”
Kasofsky added, “People with smart phones were able to access some information over the Internet, but the majority of our senior community relies completely upon us to provide them with information, and all we were getting from PSE&G was how many customers were still without power.”
Ralph LaRossa, president and COO of PSEG, told those present that the only way PSEG knows about power outages is when people call in to report their area out. When an outage is reported, a PSEG “scout” drives to the site to confirm it. Once that is done, the area is added to the list of confirmed outages.
Local officials requested that each town, or cluster of towns, be assigned a PSEG representative whom they can contact during power outages and from whom they can get "timely and meaningful" updates that can then be distributed to constituents.
Officials were informed that PSEG's priorities are hospitals, police and fire, followed by municipalities. PSEG suggested that local OEM's be the clearinghouse for information and keep track of people who are electric-reliant -- a person on a respirator, for example -- so that they have this information prior to an emergency.
It was also suggested that local OEM's prepare residents for situations where there is an extended power outage by utilizing reverse 911 before a storm. Another suggestion was that local DPW crews be trained to trim tree branches that interfere with power lines since falling limbs was the main reason for the power outages during the October snowstorm.
However, officials said that making DPW staff responsible for trimming trees near electrical power lines would present potential insurance liabilities.
Mayor Ann Subrizi of , who is also a member of the newly established Bergen County Flood Advisory Committee, was unable to attend the Weinberg meeting, but commented to Patch that going forward she would like to know how the utility companies will execute their responsibilities during a storm.
"During an event like Hurricane Irene or Snow-tober [PSEG] needs to keep the power running so the ratepayers can attend to their emergency needs," Subrizi said.
"My frustration is that it is all talk and no action," she said. "It seems as if everyone involved hopes that the problems will go away on their own."
Subrizi added, "Is United Water talking to PSEG, and is the BPU listening to their conversations so that they can all agree on how to fix the problem? Or are we just praying for no more rain?"
Englewood Mayor Frank Huttle, who attended the meeting, has filed a complaint with the BPU against PSEG. The complaint charges that slow communication and response time resulted in a "public safety hazard" after the October snowstorm, citing that over 7500 Englewood residents were without power, and police, fire and DPW were without electricity for four days.
Both the current president of the BPU, Lee Solomon, and in-coming president, Robert Hanna, were present. They asked town officials to consider vegetation management, and suggested moving substations out of flood zones (or raising them), lowering the reservoirs prior to a severe weather event and having local OEM's provide residents with information prior to a weather event to ensure better preparation.
BPU issued a preliminary report on Dec. 14 confirming the sentiments of the local officials. Specifically, that utility companies need to improve communication with local officials and establish a protocol for preparedness before any severe weather event.
Other recommendations include having utility representatives assigned to county OEM's, trimming branches that grow into high-voltage power lines, and increase the use of social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter by utilities.
The report identified another area of weakness to be the utilities , particularly those who are electric-dependent. It was recommended that people who rely on electrical power for life-support be awarded priority in the event of a power outage.
Regarding the eight low-lying PSEG substations impacted by flooding (New Milford, River Edge, Hillsdale, South Hackensack, Hoboken, Cranford, Somerville and Scotch Plains), the report recommended that a consultant be employed to investigate what physical protection was in effect (sand bags, flood walls, etc.) and determine the adequacy of these mitigation measures.