FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: December 21, 2011
SCHUMER: DURING FALL STORM, TENS OF THOUSANDS OF HUDSON VALLEY CUSTOMERS WERE LEFT IN THE DARK ABOUT WHEN POWER WOULD COME BACK ON; CALLS ON UTILITIES TO OFFER TEXT MESSAGE ALERTS, EMAILS & ROBO-CALLS SO RESIDENTS KNOW EXACTLY WHEN TO EXPECT POWER TO COME BACK
Today, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer called on the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) to require utility providers to offer an opt-in text message, email, and robocall alert system to give Hudson Valley residents timely and accurate service updates during devastating power outages. After the October snow storm this year left tens of thousands of Hudson Valley residents without power for days, Schumer is pushing for significant improvements to utility companies’ power-outage response protocol. Schumer noted that areas of Putnam County were left without power for up to 7 days during the October storm, according to reports to Schumer’s office. Currently, utility companies like New York State Electric and Gas Corporation (NYSEG), Con Edison and Orange and Rockland provide information about their utilities through limited customer service phone calls and website postings, but in the case of severe outages phone lines are inundated and most individuals cannot easily access the internet. Mobile phones are often the primary mode of communication for residents during power outages, because they do not rely on electricity in the home to function. Schumer urged the PSC, which regulates the state’s utility services, to require an opt-in text message, robocall, and email alert system from utility companies to improve information flow to customers so that customers can have more accurate expectations for when their power will return. Schumer’s call comes as the forecast for upcoming winter months predicts severe storms, and power outages could also mean heating outages for thousands of Hudson Valley residents.
“Hurricane Irene and the October snow storm in the Hudson Valley have made it abundantly clear that utility companies must step up their communication with customers when power outages occur,” said Schumer. “I am urging the PSC to require an opt-in text message, email and robocall system from these companies, so that Hudson Valley residents can have accurate and timely updates regarding power outages and when services are expected to return. With a harsh winter bearing down on us we can’t afford to wait, because when power outages mean heating outages, keeping customers informed is vital. Utility companies are leaving their thousands of good-paying Hudson Valley customers both literally and figuratively in the dark during these massive storms, and I am urging PSC to adopt an alert system to solve that problem.”
Schumer was joined by area homeowners in Carmel who were without power for days during the October storm, and who were given incomplete and conflicting information about when power was expected to return, as he pushed the NYS Public Service Commission to require utility companies to adopt an opt-in text, email and robocoll alert system to improve critical communications with customers during power outages. Schumer’s call comes after inefficient and inaccurate information sharing with customers during power outages caused by Tropical Storm Irene and this fall’s nor’easter. During such extensive power outages, customers and residents are negatively impacted across many realms of their daily lives, and up-to-date alerts regarding power outages and returns of service allow individuals to plan accordingly. One of the biggest threats comes to individuals during power outages in the winter, because this can also often mean heating outages for customers. Schumer also noted that when customers lose electricity it means that modems cannot power landline-based telephones and internet service in customer’s homes, rendering the existing alerts of customer service calls and website postings virtually useless. Mobile phones are more reliable during storms, as they do not rely on phone lines and modems through the home, and often can be charged through car chargers. Schumer is pushing for opt-in text messages, emails and robocalls, all of which are options that can be accessed on varying levels through cell phones.
The utility companies covering the Hudson Valley have various methods of keeping in touch with their customers during a power outage, but none meet the threshold Schumer is proposing. The New York State Electric and Gas Corporation (NYSEG) is the primary utility provider in Putnam County. NYSEG requires customers to call in and work through an automated voice system, or enter their address or account numbers to receive restoration updates. These two avenues are available for customers to report outages and are the manner in which customers are notified of restoration times. However, in the October storm, the online information changed frequently and did not match the dates and times when power was actually restored. Schumer noted that this lack of accurate and reliable information for days on end must be addressed swiftly, with winter now fully upon Putnam County.
Over the weekend of October 30th to 31st, New York and the rest of the East Coast was blanketed by a nor’easter rare for the time of year. The nor’easter, which struck the Lower Hudson Valley, Long Island, and NYC the hardest, resulted in more than 400,000 customers without power at the storm’s peak. Of that total, 170,000 power outages occurred in the Hudson Valley. Record damage occurred due to downed trees and power lines in Orange, Putnam, Rockland and Westchester Counties. During that storm, many residents were without power for days, and were in intense search for information regarding the return of their utilities for multiple days. According to the Journal News, approximately 3,000 customers in northern Westchester and Putnam, covered by New York State Electric and Gas, were still without power four days after the storm. In some extreme cases, power outages extended into the 6th and 7th day after the storm. Many customers relied heavily on the NYSEG website during that time, which reported inaccurate information about the safety of streets in the area and the return of power. On Saturday, August 27th Tropical Storm Irene hit New York. The storm left 750,000 statewide customers without electricity, including hundreds of thousands in the Hudson Valley.
The New York State Public Service Commission requires electric utilities to file Electric Utility Emergency Plan with the Commission, through the 16 NYCRR Part 105 regulation, that must include, the companies procedures and facilities for establishing and maintaining external communications and exchanges regarding damage and restoration progress with customers in general. The plans typically cite communication vehicles such as call centers (including "on-hold" messages), websites, and press releases. These emergency plans also discuss modes of communication with specific audiences, such as public officials, life-support equipment customers, and more. However, the PSC is not aware of any utility emergency plan that mentions "new" communications media such as text messaging Twitter or Facebook by any utility companies. Schumer stated that this marks a major communication gap with customers during power outages, and is urging that the PSC require utility companies to establish opt-in text message, email and robocall alert system, so that customers can receive timely updates on power outages during upcoming winter storms through more reliable modes of communication.
The New York State Public Service Commission has begun a review of utilities performance in response to the nor’easter that swept through large portions of New York on October 29, 2011. Because the outage lasted more than 3 days, the Commission regulation 16 NYCRR Part 105, the Electric Utility Emergency Plan, requires the electric utilities to perform an internal performance review of their performance during this storm and to submit their findings to the Commission within 60 days following the completion of service restoration. Staff will be performing its review to determine if the utilities responded appropriately, and to identify whether improvements can be made from the “lessons learned” during the event. Reports concerning response to the October Nor’easter will be due in January. However, Schumer stated that there are lessons learned that clearly require immediate action before the next storm hits, particularly in the utilities’ communication with customers. Schumer is therefore urging that the PSC swiftly take action to improve an opt-in alert system before that January deadline, as winter storms fast approach the Hudson Valley.
A copy of Senator Schumer’s letter to the NY Public Service Commission appears below:
Dear Commissioner Brown,
I write to express my concern over the repeated incidents of failed reliable customer notification by utilities of outages and power restoration. As you are aware, tropical storms Irene and Lee left some residents without power for days. Customers were also unduly burdened with insufficient communication from their utility on the nature of their outage or when power would be restored. I urge the Public Service Commission (PSC) to coordinate with electric utilities to incorporate an opt-in program, providing text message, email alerts, or robo calls notifying individual customers of outages and restoration times.
The recent storms of Irene and Lee left much of the state devastated with downed power lines and outages exposing a weakness in the way some of our electric utilities communicate with their consumers. Some residents who did not have access to a television source or internet were both physically and metaphorically in the dark. They were left without any power nor any means of being informed of when that power would be restored. While more and more utilities are deploying new media platforms in informing the public of their actions, which is laudable, there appears to be little in the way of direct emergency communication with individual customers. Viable direct communication platforms, such as text messages, e-mail, and robo calls, should be utilized in these more devastating outage situations. Allowing customers the opportunity to determine whether they should remain in their homes during a power outage or seek shelter elsewhere can at times mean the difference between life and death.
The PSC has the clear regulatory authority codified in 16 NYCRR Part 105 of the Commission's regulations, requiring electric utilities to file with the Commission emergency plans. I urge the PSC to coordinate with electric utilities to incorporate an opt-in program, providing text message, email alerts, or robo calls notifying individual customers of outages and restoration times.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter. If you have any additional questions or need additional information, please contact my Washington, DC office at 202-224-6542.