PSC fears that job cuts may affect BGE service

Floyd outages prompt hearing involving Md. power companies

November 05, 1999|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

In a hearing stemming from widespread utility outages during Hurricane Floyd, the Maryland Public Service Commission expressed concern yesterday that Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s service reliability could be jeopardized by past and potential job cuts.

The commissioners questioned BGE and the state's other power utilities -- Potomac Electric Power Co., Allegheny Power and Conectiv Inc. -- for five hours to determine their emergency preparedness. They also questioned Bell Atlantic-Maryland and Armstrong Telephone Co. for two hours about their plans.

The utilities, calling the hurricane the kind of event that occurs every 40 years, outlined steps they were taking to improve communication with customers during emergencies.

BGE's performance during the September storm has been singled out because nearly half of its 1.1 million customers in the Baltimore metropolitan area lost power, some for as long as eight days.

"There are folks who think cuts in personnel have not been all positive," said Commissioner Catherine I. Riley. "The magnitude of Floyd was a wake-up call."

BGE officials told the commission that technology has allowed the utility to improve reliability despite a 17 percent decrease in overhead line workers and service operators in the past five years, even as it gained customers.

BGE also disclosed that it had postponed until January a decision on whether to cut an additional 250 to 350 positions. In July, the utility said a final decision would be made in October.

"Our staffing numbers are being carefully looked at in the context of what we're learning from Hurricane Floyd," Frank O. Heintz, BGE's executive vice president of utility operations, said after the hearing. Heintz said no more than 350 jobs would be affected if cuts were found to be warranted.

The commissioners also took the utilities to task for failing to communicate adequately with customers during the outages.

Heintz testified that the utility will add more telephone capacity to take calls from consumers by the end of the year and will begin training new workers to handle calls this month. It also is designing a computerized system that would allow it to give callers more information on when power would be restored. That system is to be be installed in the next two years.

The state's other three power utilities joined BGE in opposing a system of uniform performance standards for the companies. They also opposed paying damages to consumers or paying penalties for outages.

Sandra Guthorn, deputy of the Maryland Office of People's Counsel, said the utilities self-assessments aren't good enough.

"We want safe, reliable service, and right now that's questionable," she said after the hearing. "Are they not maintaining enough supplies and enough people? These are the types of things we still don't know."

The PSC is to submit its findings, along with possible future remedies, to Gov. Parris N. Glendening Dec. 1.

The hearing will continue today.

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