Communities are hesitant to praise ComEd’s new response protocols
A ComEd crew lineman works high on a electric pole to restore power last summer. l Keith Hale~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 12, 2012 6:12AM
Government officials and Commonwealth Edison customers now have power-outage information at their fingertips. Yet a mild summer meant the utility company’s new communication strategies weren’t really put to the test, area municipal representatives said.
ComEd recently changed its emergency-response procedures to power outages after community leaders across the Chicago area criticized the company’s previous operations.
Village staffs have been working with the Northwest Municipal Conference to come up with recommendations for ComEd on how to improve its outage response, said Mark Fowler, executive director of the conference.
“At first, ComEd was reluctant to participate, but once the company realized the seriousness of the situation, it became engaged,” he said. “To ComEd’s credit, this time it became very proactive.”
After months of work ComEd has changed its procedures to reflect the ideas discussed during the talks, Fowler said, creating new protocols to provide better communication to communities and customers about the status of outages. It also is planning more-effective dispatching of ComEd Crews during widespread outages.
Previously decisions on power restoration were made at a centralized dispatch office in Joliet, and were based on the number of customers affected.
The system called for ComEd’s municipal-affairs representatives to be overwhelmed by calls from more than 20 communities, each asking for updates on power problems.
“It was very difficult for municipal leaders to get accurate and timely information in the middle of crisis,” recalled Niles Village Manager George Van Geem.
Last year’s unusually extreme weather knocked out power in the town for nearly a week, he said, and there was no streamlined communication plan for dealing with the situation.
ComEd, busy trying to restore electricity, issued general status reports only once or twice a day.
Residents, though, “weren’t in the mood for a status report,” he said. “They wanted accurate information.”
Now, Joint Operation Centers, to be staffed by ComEd and municipal staff representatives, will be opened when an area outage occurs, Fowler said.
They are to serve as communications hubs between the communities affected and the company, he added.
ComEd’s northern territory has been divided into three regions: Northeast, West and South. The Northeast Region is broken into Glenbard, Libertyville, Maywood, Mount Prospect and Skokie-Techny.
Niles, Morton Grove and Park Ridge fall under the Skokie Techny.
The Skokie Techny area also includes: Northbrook, Bannockburn, Deerfield, Evanston, Glencoe, Glenview, Golf, Highland Park, Kennilworth, Lincolnwood, Northbrook, Northfield, Skokie, Wheeling and Wilmette.
Also, ComEd has developed new communication tools, including two-way texting, a smartphone app and a publicly accessible outage map.
The texting and phone app should allow customers to contact ComEd when their power is out and receive updates on work to fix it.
The interactive map will allow customers to learn the number of customers without power, that work that had been done, the probable cause and the approximate restoration time.
Van Geem said the company’s “more-up-to-date” communications strategies keep him posted on outages no matter his whereabouts.
“Now when there is a storm and the power goes off, I get a text, email and voicemail at work and home,” he said. “I know what ComEd is up to.”
But government officials say the new model for disseminating information cannot be fully evaluated until a major outage occurs.
Park Ridge Mayor Dave Schmidt said that, though he has heard fewer complaints the past summer compared with years past, “it’s an imperfect measuring stick.”
Communication appears to have improved “but I can’t tell for sure until the system is tested,” he said. “The weather has been better.”
“The storms of 2012 were nothing like 2011,” Van Geem agreed.
Morton Grove Mayor Dan Staackman said his town’s residents have also not contacted the village recently about extended power outages. Then again, the cycle of power problems followed by complaints typically happens with repeated bouts of rain, he said.
“I know (ComEd) has upgraded communication efforts greatly,” Staackman said. “The proof will be when we have a severe storm again with high winds.
“So far I haven’t heard anything bad.”
Park Ridge, meanwhile, has also taken steps to improve its communication with residents.
Under a newly developed internal process, Schmidt said, the Public Works director is charged with keeping close tabs on power outages, relaying information to elected officials and directing department staff to post updates on the city website.
According to a statement from ComEd: “Electrical-system performance is strong (among the top 25 percent nationally) and we continue to invest in the system to improve performance for our customers. In fact, on average this year, each customer has experienced less than one outage (0.97 according to the System Average Interruption Frequency Index) throughout ComEd’s northern Illinois service territory.”
Due in part to the infrastructure enhancements and the smart grid technology ComEd has installed since January, customers have experienced 29-percent-fewer interruptions compared with last year for the same time period, 0.98 average interruptions per customer this year (January through September), compared with 1.39 average interruptions the same period in 2011, ComEd stated.
Specifically, according to ComEd:
• In Park Ridge, each customer experienced an average of 1.26 outages this year, compared with 2.89 in 2011. More than half of those outages are a result of tree contact with power lines, and as a result, the company will be trimming trees in the area this year.
• In Niles, each customer experienced an average of 0.79 outages this year, compared with 1.62 in 2011.
• In Morton Grove, each customer experienced an average of 0.44 outages this year, compared with 1.57 in 2011.