ComEd to create outage command centers in suburbs
Apr 11, 2012 (Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Hoping to avoid a repeat of the chaos caused by widespread outages in last summer's storms, Commonwealth Edison announced Wednesday that it will set up temporary operation centers in areas where 20 percent of customers go without power for three hours or more.
Each of the 17 centers can be established within hours, said Anne Pramaggiore, CEO of ComEd, and will act as "local nerve centers" able to prioritize power restoration to important community buildings such as hospitals and nursing homes.
"After last summer's severe storms brought widespread devastation and prolonged power outages to our communities, it was clear that we needed a better system to work with ComEd to ensure the timely restoration of critical facilities during a crisis situation," said Christopher Canning, president of the Northwest Municipal Conference and village president of Wilmette.
Last summer, suburban leaders described a frustrating lack of communication from ComEd while downed power lines blocked streets and residents placed thousands of phone calls but couldn't receive accurate information from their utility.
The so-called "joint operations centers," Pramaggiore said, will be staffed 24 hours a day in a storm or other outage emergency, and municipal leaders will receive frequent updates from a ComEd and municipal representative at the facility.
"Working together with local municipalities, customer service will be more responsive and specialized than ever before," Pramaggiore said.
There are about 400 municipalities in ComEd's service territory.
ComEd has emergency operating centers in each of 17 community areas in its territory. The new joint operating centers are meant to provide an extra level of communication in the most extreme storms or outages, said Mike McMahan, vice president of smart grid and technology for ComEd. "This is really reserved for severe and catastrophic storms."
Based on last year's storms, he said, the joint operating centers would have been activated three or four times. In a less storm-intense year, not at all.
The two representatives manning the center would likely work out of village halls or other municipal buildings with access to electricity and the internet, McMahan said. Their locations would depend upon the circumstances.
The ComEd representative would have a direct line into the local operating center, and the municipal representative would have a direct line to municipal leaders, he said.
ComEd is embroiled in a battle with Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan over whether individual victims of extreme outages last summer -- as well as local governments that paid overtime to police and firefighters -- are entitled to compensation.
At one point more than 850,000 people in northern Illinois were without power for days. Outraged customers turned out en masse to a hearing in Highland Park to complain about lost work time, rotten food and an automated system that provided wildly inaccurate power restoration times.
ComEd responded by eliminating the automated system and creating a text messaging service that provides updates to customers who text in an outage.
The utility vowed to do better, sending out representatives to meet with suburban mayors and -- as part of massive regulatory overhaul legislation passed in late 2011 -- laid out a road map this December that ties its reliability performance to the company's wallet. The legislation passed, in part, after those meetings led a consortium of northwest suburbs, representing 1.3 million people in 41 municipalities and one township, to remove its opposition to the bill.
ComEd said Wednesday it is also set to create an outage application for smart phones. The company said it has added 1,000 more lines into its call center to prevent long wait times and 20 percent more first responders for storms.
"I certainly think it's a step in the right direction. It will depend on implementation, but overall these look like very positive developments," said David Kolata, executive director of Chicago-based consumer advocacy group Citizens Utility Board.
Starting in 2013, if ComEd doesn't reduce the duration of outages each year for the next 10 years, regulators can cut into its bottom line. ComEd, which serves 3.8 million customers across northern Illinois, will file a report each June with the Illinois Commerce Commission describing how it performed in meeting each metric and its progress.
Madigan's office is arguing that ComEd should compensate victims and towns for last summer's outages, saying that it inspected ComEd's infrastructure and discovered a neglected system littered with decrepit utility poles, equipment choked by vegetation and transformers dating to the 1950s.
But ComEd has continually requested that the Illinois Commerce Commission waive its liability for such outages, arguing, among other things, that the blackouts are unpreventable acts of nature.
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