State Senate passes emergency response bill

By Rick SobeyMilford Daily News

BOSTON – Driven by residents’ frustration over extended power failures following Tropical Storm Irene and the October snowstorm, lawmakers are supporting legislation that would push utilities to improve service and communication during storms and their aftermath.

The bill, which has passed the Senate and is now before the House, would require twice-daily public announcements by power companies on estimates of when power will be restored. It will also require that utilities establish a state call center with sufficient staffing to handle increased calls.

The measure would upgrade the rules on the way utilities communicate with customers by requiring telephone and website access.

“I heard from many residents who were frustrated by the utility companies’ responses to the August and October storms,” state Sen. James Eldridge, D-Acton, said after the bill passed unanimously last week. “In some cases, residents went without power for over a week, often unable to get any information from their utility company about when power would be restored.”

Eldridge said receiving twice-daily updates of when power would be back can help people make important decisions.

“Having that information could determine whether that person goes to a shelter or to a hotel,” he said.

State Sen. Richard Moore, D-Uxbridge, said this bill would go a long way toward improving the utilities’ response time.

“We’ve addressed a lot of concerns and complaints of constituents, like the communication updates,” Moore said. “There’s the provision that says the Department of Public Utilities will levy fines on utilities for poor response time, and it’s important to have these incentives so the utilities get the power up quickly.”

State Sen. Richard Ross, R-Wrentham, said the most consistent issue his office dealt with after the storms was the lack of communication between the utilities and local towns and cities.

“Local officials tried again and again to reach utilities for information on restoration, and when they couldn’t get through, they called my office,” he said. “The liaisons eventually appointed were ill-equipped to facilitate restoration efforts.”

The bill addresses such shortcomings by requiring a liaison in each community when implementing an emergency response plan.

“What good is a liaison if they have no knowledge or experience in restoration?” Ross said. “This requires that each community liaison would get a feeder map of equipment in the communities and give them the information they need to be effective.”

Additionally, utilities will pay an assessment charge of $460,000 to help the state Department of Public Utilities pay for its investigations of the storm responses. The cost of the assessment cannot be passed on to customers.

“Over 200 students came to the State House in November and visited all the legislators, and they held a press conference. It was pretty incredible,” said state Rep. Ryan Fattman, R-Sutton. “The students have been very, very effective in getting this through. After that day, my inbox was completely full from legislators and staff in support of the bill.”

School officials also support the legislation. Rich Piergustavo, the athletic director at Milford High School, said it’s imperative for athletic trainers to have proper equipment for the health and welfare of the students.

“These AEDs can potentially save someone’s life,” Piergustavo said. “There is a huge upside to this equipment, which we saw here with saving Tyler.”

Piergustavo said a defibrillator already stays with the trainer at all times at his school, where it is mandatory for all coaches to know CPR and first aid.

However, when the Milford teams play on the road, there isn’t always the same safety level.

“If we’re not the host, the other school is responsible, but some schools don’t have AEDs,” Piergustavo said. “Our trainer doesn’t travel, so AEDs on the road is out of our control right now. Hopefully, all the other schools will now have AEDs.”

Peter Bruce, the guidance department director at Milford High School, also backs the Senate’s bill.

“It’s crucial to protect students, so it’s great to hear that it will be rolled out and implemented,” Bruce said. “AEDs are a great asset to the students and faculty, and other schools should definitely get them.

“We already have a district protocol for any kind of crisis,” Bruce said. “We make sure that all the people working for the schools are ready for anything. It’s great that all schools will also have these emergency plans.”

The bill now heads to the House, where area representatives are pleased to see it moving forward.

“This is a life-saving bill,” said state Rep. Kevin Kuros, R-Uxbridge. “Now my hope is that the House can approve this bill, and it can be on the governor’s desk for signature in the next couple weeks.”

State Rep. John Fernandes, D-Milford, also supports the bill. Fernandes said his children have been three-sport athletes, and he has seen the need for medical response plans.

“There is no question the athletes are put at risk every time they’re out there,” Fernandes said. “It’s very important to have these plans in place and have the necessary technology and assistance. It just makes sense.”

Fattman, the Sutton Republican, said the bill was passed by the Senate last session, but the legislative time clock ran out and the House didn’t have time to pass it. Fattman said this time will be different.

“This is my responsibility to get the bill through the House,” Fattman said. “It’s a huge priority of mine. These incidents have affected my district twice. It’s a commonsense plan with no additional cost to towns. Now it’s time to get the bill through.”

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