BGE ready for hurricane season

Those 8-day outages won't happen again, utility declares


May 07, 2000|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

With what is forecast to be one of the nation's most active hurricane seasons less than a month away, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. said it is prepared to handle another Hurricane Floyd - and more.

Mass outages - some as long as eight days - after the hurricane struck in September led to intense criticism from Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the Maryland Public Service Commission and frustrated customers.

The widespread outages - nearly half of BGE's 1.1 million customers were left without power - prompted the PSC to hold hearings to investigate the repair performance and preparedness of all of the electric and telephone utilities active in the state.

BGE officials say never again.

"Prior to Floyd, we felt we had a good [preparedness and restoration] plan, but we learned we did not fully meet our customers' expectations," said Richard J. Chambliss Jr., BGE's manager of electric system operations and planning.

A number of changes - at a cost of about $2 million - will allow BGE to handle a weather event even larger than Hurricane Floyd, Chambliss said.

Hurricane season starts June 1 and runs until Nov. 30. According to the nation's leading hurricane forecaster, the chance that one major hurricane - or more - will make landfall on the U.S. East Coast is 39 percent. The forthcoming hurricane season is predicted to have a destructive potential about 20 percent greater than average.

Storms must generate winds of at least 74 mph before they are classified as hurricanes, among the most powerful natural phenomena on Earth.

At the crux of BGE's reformed storm-preparedness plan is the goal of making sure no customer is without power for longer than four days.

"That's a goal with huge, logistical challenges," said Stephen F. Wood, BGE's vice president of electric transmission and distribution.

"No one wants to be without power for more than a day. But when we get into the fifth day, the public opposition is very high," Wood said.

Other changes include:

Increasing BGE's ability to deploy up to 1,000 restoration crews from other local utilities and from out-of-state.

Nearly doubling the number of call-in lines from 280 to 520.

Installing a call-overflow system that can handle up to 100,000 calls per hour.

Training additional workers who can work on high-voltage electric wires.

The changes are designed to enhance the utility's responsiveness, Wood said.

Furthermore, many of the changes are in line with recommendations released in a report Friday by a task force appointed by Glendening in Floyd's wake. The 15-member task force was to look into long-term solutions to service disruption among the eight electric and telephone utilities active in the state.

Among its 17 recommendations are: installing automated phone systems to give customers more accurate estimates of when power would be restored; routinely trimming trees; and burying some electric wires that are above ground.

"BGE supports the findings and is well under way in incorporating its recommendations into operations," said Frank Bender, BGE's vice president of retail services and a member of the task force.

But the utility's critics say they will remain concerned until BGE's performance is put to the test.

"I certainly hope for citizens and consumers that BGE is ready," said Richard Crawshaw, a representative of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which has tried to unionize BGE workers for five years.

The union has blamed the utility's slow response on inadequate staffing.

"From what I know of their plan, they seem to be more focused on improving telephone communications than putting workers in the field," he said. "They should hire more workers."

At the PSC hearings, BGE acknowledged that the number of overhead line workers and service operators has declined 17 percent in the past five years.

"We won't say we've staffed up to the maximum," Wood said last week. "No utility has enough crews to handle a major weather event. The union will always argue there aren't enough workers."

Glenn F. Ivey, chairman of the Public Service Commission, said BGE has addressed the key concerns of the PSC.

"I think BGE has done everything we've asked them to do," Ivey said. "Hopefully, all of this will help reduce the number of outages."

The PSC ordered BGE to improve its mutual-assistance program, its communication with customers and its tree-trimming program

The majority of the power outages during Hurricane Floyd were caused by trees falling on wires.

Total power restoration involved restoring 115 miles of overhead wire, BGE said.

BGE has outsourced its tree-maintenance work for about 25 years, the utility said. This year, the company has slightly increased its tree-maintenance budget, to $15.4 million from $15.1 million in 1999.

"We are trimming more than we have in the past," Wood said.

The other crucial job during weather emergencies is overhead wire work.

During Floyd, BGE had about 230 overhead line crews - consisting of about three people each - including those from 13 other utilities.

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