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O&R Upgrades Emergency Response Procedures

Utility says it will be easier to report outages and find out when power will return during natural disasters; recognizes pitfalls during Irene and the October snowstorm

O&R Upgrades Emergency Response Procedures

, the utility that services homes and businesses in Mahwah, announced this week several major changes to its emergency procedures. The changes, the company said in a release, are a reaction to two major storms last year – and the .

The utility called the two events the “most destructive storms ever to hit O&R,” in the release. During the October storm, over 40 percent of O&R’s 300,000 customers lost power.

Issues, the utility said, were compounded when infrastructural damage slowed response times and the volume of calls the utility received shut down its call center, making resident communication with the company slow, or impossible.

According to O&R’s CEO and President Bill Longhi, the utility gathered a task force of 15 employees to create changes to the company’s emergency response practices, in an effort to increase communication and response times during storms.

“This program doesn’t mean customers will not have another power outage when a natural disaster hits. This program means that when a natural disaster strikes, O&R customers can better communicate with us, we can communicate better with them, including giving them a clearer idea of when their power will be restored, and that our overall restoration process will be more efficient,” he said in a release.

Longhi said some changes have already been implemented, and others will continue to be implemented in coming months.

In the release, O&R explained in detail some of the changes, which include an upgraded automated telephone service that can withstand more calls and a more accurate system of reporting power restoration times:

  • Enhanced Ability to Answer Calls.

O&R’s telephone system typically processes 800,000 calls per year. The same system received 266,000 calls in one week during the snowstorm and 210,000 in one week during Hurricane Irene. The peak volume of calls per hour reached 12,000 in each storm (7,000 were unique calls; the other 5,000 were repeat calls).

To address that issue, O&R has installed a new automated call answering service administered by Twenty-First Century Communications, Inc. (TFCC), an industry leader in call-center solutions.

In an emergency situation, O&R will activate that system and the service will route the calls to an interactive voice response (IVR) system. There, the customer will receive a message with information about the event and will have the opportunity to report an outage and immediately receive Estimate Restore Time (ERT) information for their account if it is available.

O&R also expanded its daily customer call system from 92 incoming lines to 368 incoming lines.

  • Transforming Data Into Information.

To process the volume of data from the expanded incoming call lines, O&R also has expanded its Outage Management System (OMS). An improved computer program will transform data from automated calls into repair assignments and outage reports.

The information also will go to an updated Outage Map which, in response to emergency services and customer concerns, will display the street locations of single service outages that affect one customer as well as circuit outages which affect multiple customers. In addition to providing customers with a description of the cause of the outage, the Outage Map will be optimized for use on IPad and IPhone and Android phones.

For the approximately 30 percent of O&R customer callers who prefer to report their outages to a person, O&R also has initiated a plan by which overflow calls during a high-volume period would be automatically transferred to 100 Con Edison customer service representatives who will answer those calls and process outage information.

In addition, to provide an added level of reliability to the customer calling system, O&R is contracting for another TFCC service called MARS (Mutual Assistance Routing System), which taps excess customer service call-answering capacity at other utilities for those utilities that need them for high-volume call situations.

This permits O&R to offer even more trained utility company customer service representatives to help those customers who wish to speak personally to a representative.

As part of its effort to more fully serve its customers, particularly during storms and other emergencies, O&R has embarked upon a campaign to obtain up-to-date primary and alternate phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

The more contact information O&R has, the quicker it can identify a customer’s account, and the quicker it can help that customer. With the up-to-date primary phone numbers and alternates on file, O&R can identify customers’ accounts as soon they call.

Looking forward, this effort also will enhance O&R’s ability to contact customers pro-actively. To better communicate more fully with customers, O&R also has contracted with TFCC for its Alert system.

Alert, which is under development and is expected to be online this summer, is a high-speed, high-volume outbound notification system that lets the Company send time-sensitive information to customers or employees on virtually any electronic device.

The speed of this system is dependent on the length or the message and the capacity of the local telephone company switches to process the data. With Alert, O&R can send targeted messages to select groups or geographic areas by landline, cell phone, VoIP phone, PDA, pager, text, e-mail, fax and TTY/TDD machines. Alert also integrates with Twitter and other social media platforms.

  • More Accurate Service Restoration Times.

Until now, damage assessment had been the key factor in how O&R estimates service restoration times. Now, O&R will be refining that process by integrating damage assessment data into a formula that includes a number of other variables such as weather forecasts, storm path location, season, foliage, temperature and time of storm arrival, pre-storm resource planning, and historical knowledge and experience from prior storms combined with initial reports on the storm’s severity (number of incidents, number of customers) to more fully develop a comprehensive picture of a storm’s impact.

That analysis will guide O&R in the development of its workforce mobilization timetables, and its equipment and staffing deployment, and as a result, more fully inform its decision-making and strategy about repair, restoration and recovery.

Once the extent of the event is determined and a solution is plotted and time-lined, the Estimated Restore Times (ERTs) are set. Those ERTs then will be communicated to the public through the full range of O&R communications channels.      

  • Improved Storm Plan Structure and Process.

In addition to customer information and communication system improvements, O&R examined every aspect of the Storm Plan from its organization protocols and activation timing to its staffing needs and its cooperative relationships with state, county and local agencies.

As a result of that intensive study, a number of steps are being taken to streamline this process including a revision of the Incident Command Structure (ICS) to organize the overall effort better, the creation of a municipal storm priority matrix to help clear downed wires and open key roads quicker, the adoption of an improved incident information process for police and fire departments to report damage sites more completely and the development of alternate equipment and personnel staging locations that are closer to the damage to help make the actual repair, restoration and recovery process faster.

That revision also includes new protocols designed to activate more internal and external storm response resources sooner, to create a wider span of control over those resources to utilize them more fully and to tap more quickly materials and staffing resources available from Consolidated Edison of New York, O&R’s sister company in the Consolidated Edison, Inc. family of companies.      

    For additional information about O&R and its programs, visit O&R’s Web site at www.oru.com.

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