ANNAPOLIS – When Hurricane Isabel hit a year ago, leaving many parts of Maryland powerless for days, utility companies were roundly criticized for numerous failures to anticipate the storm’s wallop.
This year, with the giant Hurricane Frances expected to strike Florida Saturday and then make her way up the East Coast, Pepco and Baltimore Gas and Electric are not taking any chances.
After Isabel left her mark last Sept. 18, Pepco made several changes to the way it tracks storms and prepares for restorations, including enhancing its computer systems and working with communities to improve service, according to spokesman Robert Dobkin.
Pepco also hired former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt to make improvement recommendations. Pepco has made the changes, Dobkin said, and customers should see enhanced public safety, shorter restoration times and more accurate information.
BGE, meanwhile, upgraded its equipment to track storms and to track power outages, said spokeswoman Linda Foy. It has also enhanced its ability to predict work times for some repairs. In addition, BGE also will station personnel by live wires until crews arrive to secure them.
BGE also improved its communication with the public since Isabel, Foy said. Now, BGE posts outage locations, numbers and estimated restoration time on its Web site, BGE.com. It’s a practice begun during Isabel that BGE has made a permanent.
Complaints about utility performance were so numerous and prominent that the Maryland Public Service Commission ordered utilities to improve and set six targets, said Chrissy Nizer, commission external relations manager. The commission ordered utilities to meet with the state’s emergency management agency, to provide a written description of their life support and vulnerable customer program and to provide more public education.
The companies involved have complied with the guidelines, she said.
But probably the biggest problem with Isabel, she said, was that the public was not prepared to deal with the lengthy power outages. Since then, the utilities have improved education.
“They need to be able to respond in an efficient and productive manner.”
The companies have also stepped up tree trimming because downed trees were a chief cause of outages last year.
“We’ve been more aggressive in tree trimming, but no matter how much you trim, if an entire tree comes down, it’s going to take down a line,” Dobkin said. There’s only so much you can do with that.”
Isabel has helped intensify efforts in other areas as well, Foy said.
“Isabel was the worst storm in BGE’s 180-year history,” she said. “Not before nor since have we seen a storm that damaging.”
Pepco’s preparations for Frances include assuring its restoration supply warehouses are stocked, crew schedules are reworked and outside help is alerted in case it’s needed.
“We think ahead of time,” Dobkin said. “Any idea that we don’t is flat wrong.”
BGE has encouraged customers to prepare for storms by keeping flashlights, batteries and corded telephones on hand.
It has also notified crews that they may be required to work additional hours in case a storm does hit.
Both companies have already contacted other utilities to see if they’ll have crews available to lend a hand.
“We’ve been in touch with various utilities,” Dobkin said. “No utility on the East Coast is going to release crews yet, because we don’t know yet how it’s going to affect the East Coast. But we’ll look for help possibly from New England and the Midwest, as we did last year.”
BGE has a cooperation agreement among various utilities, and it sent crews to Florida to assist Hurricane Charley restoration efforts.
According to Prince George’s County communications director Jim Keary, the county had discussions with utilities following Isabel and made recommendations for improving communication between the two.
Since then, Keary said Pepco and BGE have made adjustments.
“They provided us with assurances about responses in future similar events,” he said. “They’ve assured us that improvements have been made.”
According to Greg Romano, a spokesman for the National Weather Service, the five-day forecast as of Thursday has the storm heading into Georgia.
“It’s really too early to say what, if any, impact it may have on Maryland.”