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JCP&L: We Learned From 2011's Big Storms

At the Morris Township Committee Meeting Wednesday, JCP&L and BPU officials presented new plans for stepping up communication, storm response.

JCP&L had a message for Morris Township residents this week: We get why you're frustrated. And we're working on it.

The power company and the Board of Public Utilities came to the Morris Township Committee meeting Wednesday to talk about the response to last year's two extraordinary storms — Irene and the October Snowstorm. And talk, several of those attending and involved said, is what needed to be handled better as crews chased down massive outsages that lasted for several days or weeks throughout the state.

"There was an incredible frustration at the local level that no information was flowing back about where the crews were and what the estimated time of restoration service was," said BPU President Robert Hanna.

The storms presented Morris Township with a series of problems and cost the municipality nearly $1 million dollars, Mayor Peter Mancuso said.

Hanna said officials are investigating three main areas. The first is vegetation management, which deals with tree pruning so that the trees can be cut away from electrical wires; ice-heavy trees played a major role in the October storm. The second part of the investigation involves the number and efficiency of workers. The last, and perhaps the most vital, he said, is the communication from the local level to the state police.

JCP&L officials said they are indeed working on improving communication, and several in attendance offered advice and perspective.

"Communication was clearly the No. 1 issue for the public, the community, the regulators, for our emergency personnel and for our utilities," said township committee member H. Scott Rosenbush. "We all learned what we we're good at, and we all very quickly learned where the holes were."

JCP&L president Don Lynch said that he was faced with challenges during these two storms that he's never seen before in his 35 years with the company. And in response, the company's been enhancing its communications system.

"On the second storm we had over 3,000 men working, the largest restoration efforts ever in our history," said Lynch.

Even with the high number of workers, communication was still an issue for customers. Because of this, JCP&L made several changes.

"We had enhancements to our website," said Lynch. "We had pictures to show people what the damage was.

Lynch also said the company started using social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook to update their customers as much as they could. It used videos on YouTube to answer many questions for the public.

"With 20,000 wires down and 8,000 trees on wires, and our crews out working, we tried to get the best information when we could," said Lynch.

Lynch said that the company had been using the same communication system for many years, but this year it improved significantly. JCP&L worked with local mayors and officials to provide accurate information about crews, and to get better estimates about when power would be restored, he said.

Suggestions for Doing Better

Resident Harvey Klein, who is the officer emergency coordinator for Morris Township and also a Morris County radio officer, expressed his concern for efficient communication. He worked during the October snowstorm, and stressed that it is very important for people to call JCP&L as soon as their power goes out, and not to depend on neighbors or anyone else.

Morris Township resident Maureen Medure was frustrated with the inaccessibility of communication. During the power outage she called JCP&L and got an automated message that said to check the Web site, but she had no way to go on the Web site without power, she said.

George Hayes of Morris Township also told JCP&L about his problems with the messaging system. 

"I would really like to see an ability for your customers to get past your automated system for reporting and talk to a human being," said Hayes.

Another suggestion addressed at the meeting was burying electrical wires. Diane Holland of Liberty Greens in Morris Township said that she thinks burying wires are worth the expense because it would be beneficial in the long term.

Lynch responded saying that the rates are determined by the BPU, and also working underground is more disruptive in certain places. While the reliability could be better, it could take longer to fix when outages occur.

Some residents even expressed frustration over power outages unrelated to the storms. Catherine Mitrose from the Bradford Estates neighborhood said she had power go out twice the week before Christmas. Other residents said they have flickering lights on occasion.

JCP&L has done a number of projects for the Bradford Estates, officials said. The company identified a number of things to improve reliability, and completed many projects such as streetlight repairs, line issues, and gap arresters at the beginning of March.

Since the storms, JCP&L has invested $165 million for repair equipment such as replacing poles and wires, officials said. It is investing in an additional $200 million dollars this year for reliability upgrades. Since 2001, it has invested in more than $1.6 billion dollars to distribution.

"I recognize the inconvenience when you don't have power," said Lynch. "As we go further and further into time more and more things require electricity, so I take that very seriously, and thats why I appreciate the opportunity here to talk about some of the things we're trying to improve."

All comments and information from Wednesday night's meeting will be sent to both JCP&L and the BPU.

The next township committee meeting will be held on April 18.

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