State Senate passes storm 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.

“We put enforcement tools in this bill for utilities that don’t serve customers how they should,” Eldridge said. “Delays and poor communication are unacceptable in the 21st century.”

The bill now heads to the House.

State Rep. John Fernandes, D-Milford, said he has not been able to review the bill yet but was upset by the utilities’ slow response to the storms. He said it is appropriate to take action and fix this issue for future storms.

“It’s essential to improve the emergency response plans,” Fernandes said. “The reasonable expectations were not met by utilities and need to be corrected. There needs to be a more effective response in the future. The response times stretched way too long.”

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