WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
No Lights, No Power, No ETA
Thursday, December 06, 2012
State and local officials assessing the performance of New Jersey’s utility companies in the aftermath of Sandy are singling out JCP&L for poor performance and inept communication about its efforts to restore power. Among the most frustrated are first responders in the central New Jersey town of Mendham, who say they could not get assistance from JCP&L to clear downed power lines, even as the utility was rushing to restore power to Gov. Chris Christie’s neighborhood.
But the dissatisfaction runs up and down the state, based on experiences like that the one Lieutenant Randy Mills of the Vernon Police Department had on the afternoon of the nor'easter snow storm that arrived on Sandy's heels. The department, he said, was barraged with emergency calls.
"We responded to a scene on County Route 515. It was called in as an overturned motor vehicle with downed wires on top of it," Mills recalled.
Police can't start a rescue until they get the power company to respond to make the site safe. In these cases officers use a 911 hotline provided by JCP&L's parent company, First Energy, in Ohio.
"While we were en route, we have our 911 operator calling JCP&L's Emergency call center," Mills said.
Mills has a tape recording of the almost-nine-minute exchange between the Vernon police dispatcher and First Energy's 911 operator. It starts with a recorded voice saying, "You have reached the First Energy 911 service. Your call is being given the highest priority and will be answered by the next available representative." It's followed by a canned musical break until:
FIRST ENERGY: First Energy. This is Lori. May I have your name?
VERNON DISPATCH: Hi Lori. My name is Kathy and I am calling from the Vernon Township Police Department.
FIRST ENERGY: What state is that?
VERNON DISPATCH: New Jersey.
For several minutes the First Energy operator struggles to find the location of the accident and tells the Vernon dispatcher at the end of the call that the utility can't offer Vernon police an estimated time of arrival for a crew to handle the downed wires.
"Should that call have taken nine minutes?" Mills asked.
This is not the first time complaints about problems with JCP&L's communications have surfaced. After prolonged power outages following Irene and the freak 2011 Halloween blizzard, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities commissioned an independent review of all of the state's power companies.
JCP&L was singled out for poor emergency planning and communications with local officials. After Sandy more than 3,000 JCP&L customers called the BPU to register complaints, more than four times the volume logged for Public Service Electric and Gas, the state's largest utility.
Having an out-of-state corporation own New Jersey's utilities makes it harder for state regulators to insure customers get the service and communication they need, according to Stephanie Brand, a consumer advocate for ratepayers in New Jersey.
"I think it's problematic that we have seen a lot of concentration in the utilities industry," Brand said. "Many of our utilities are out-of-state holding companies and I think the most important thing we need to focus on here is accountability."
Sandy claimed her first fatalities in Mendham Township in Morris County when a married couple was killed by a falling tree. When power lines are down, local first responders have to wait for the utility, according to Evan Thomas, the director of the Office of Emergency Management in Mendham. But after Sandy, JCP&L was no where to be seen, he said.
"After about three days, I told Dave Reed, our DPW chief, to blow through the roads — knock the poles out of the way because people were trapped in their houses." Thomas said.
The blackout persisted. Thomas rationed generators to residents who needed them for essential medical devices. It was impossible for local officials to get any information from JCP&L until they connected with the company's foreman Joe Fullagher, who was honest and accessible. Then local officials learned Fullagher had been suspended.
"He formed a relationship with one of our people so that we actually had good coordination and far from punishing this guy he should be rewarded for superior service," said Deputy Mayor Richard Merkt.
Josh Weiner, the attorney representing Fullagher, said the foreman was suspended without pay for allegedly hindering the restoration work. Fullagher's problems started when he asked JCP&L managers why his crews had been cut by half, Weiner said. Fullagher also complained about orders to send all of his crews to restore power to the neighborhood where Governor Chris Christie lives.
"He was given essentially a directive that under no circumstances was he to do anything further but to divert all crews to restore Governor Christie's neighborhood. He didn't think it was fair to the residents of Mendham," Weiner said.
JC&L won't comment on pending personnel matters.
A spokesman for Governor Christie says the governor never sought special treatment from the utility. By election day Christie was back home to cast his ballot with his daughter at the Mendham Firehouse, and his power was on.
"I just got it back last night at about 6:30. So this is the first time I have been back here since a week ago Saturday. So I was speaking to one of our local OEM guys. He said the damage done on my property is one of the five worst in the town," Christie said.
The governor bristled at the suggestion that the overwhelming majority of people without power should be blamed on JCP&L.
"Drive around town Bob. I talked to JCP&L yesterday and Mendham is one of the worst five towns in the state in terms of trees downed or poles down. If you drive around today it's miraculous we have any power up anywhere," Christie said.
Yet days after the election, with substantial parts of their town still out the township administrator was asking residents to take their complaints directly to the Governor's office.
Last year Governor Christie was sharply critical of JCP&L and its Ohio parent First Energy. After Sandy, he had supportive words for all of the state's utilities.
JCP&L's territory does include the coastal communities hit hardest by Sandy and the rural interior portions of the state like Morris and Sussex counties that were ravaged by tropical force winds that decimated local trees cover and power line.
The utilities logistical challenges were all due to the scale of the damage done by Sandy, according to Tom Snyder, spokesman for First Energy, the parent company of JCP&L.
"Hurricane Sandy was much worse, by far much worse than Hurricane Irene and the October snow storm combined," Snyder said.
He says the utility made communication a top priority.
"We do our best on communicating with customers. We launched a Twitter account, Facebook account to keep our customers well informed about what was going on," Snyder said.
Communication, local relationships and level of service seem to come hand in hand. In Vernon, where the 911 hotline problems occurred, Police Lieutenant Mills says he saw first hand the vast difference between the out of state utility JCP&L's performance and local- based Sussex Rural Electric, a local co-op that also serves his town.
"Most of Sussex Rural customers in Vernon Township were restored in 48 — certainly 72 hours. They were all pretty much all back up line in contrast and sometimes they are literally neighbors across the street from each other. JCP&L customers were out seven — ten days plus," Mills said.
This was true elsewhere in New Jersey in the weeks following the storm. JCP&L customers in Summit were out of power for two weeks, while in nearby Madison residents had service restored in a few days by their locally-owned municipal utility.
JCP&L has filed for a 1.4 percent rate hike just to cover last year's storm restoration costs. Sandy's price tag is still being tabulated.