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News Analysis

Fortnightly Magazine - February 15 2000

to evaluate utility efforts to keep them informed:

* "Do you think you received timely, accurate and adequate communications from the company or otherwise about what was happening before, during and after the service interruptions?"

* "Did you attempt to contact the company for information or assistance immediately, before, during or after the outage, and did you get what you were requesting?"

"What you're trying to do is use the best technology available ¼ to communicate more effectively," says McCracken. But what caused NIE to founder?

A lot of it was technology. When the calls started flooding in from customers, the telephone system couldn't handle the crush. The system was designed to produce a printout for each and every call, but that only created a massive logjam. "We had printouts coming through on Day 2 or 3 which related to Day 1," McCracken says. "The system was just overwhelmed."

In the ensuing months, the company sought to avoid a repeat performance. It installed a system able to handle 200,000-plus calls per hour, that also identifies caller locations and send out an electronic message specific to the caller area. With the help of the first tier of the automated system, said McCracken, "You've bought yourself five or six hours" (before customers will want updated information and start calling back again). By that time, if customers weren't already back online, a new electronic message would update them.

"It's that call-handling capability, alongside the trouble management system, that would be the two most critical steps we've taken in improving our capability in these, what I would call, 'avalanche situations.'"

Documenting Your Actions

Using the best technology available could prove critical for a utility when it winds up in court or before regulators. Consider Illinois, which has created a clear link between deregulation and outage liability.

Adopting a sort of quid pro quo approach, the Illinois commission offered recovery of stranded costs to utilities in exchange for higher reliability standards. Under the new rules, if a relatively widespread outage lasts four hours or longer, a utility may be open to sanction unless it can prove that it took all reasonable steps to avoid or minimize the outage. In other words, it's the utility's job not only to do everything it can to prevent outages, but to document and communicate its actions.

In Illinois, outage liability insurance is now available to utilities from Swiss Re New Markets. "That's a risk we evaluated and were able to underwrite," says Bill Anderson, director, industry practice-utilities at Swiss Re. "We did all the right things."

In Northern Ireland, the Boxing Day storm did not trigger a flurry of lawsuits, but it did generate heat from politicians. In the past year, the company embarked

on a $20 million upgrade of its distribution automation technologies.

"We must be able to stand up on the moral high ground and be able to say, 'Nobody could have got it better.' And that's not so very much different from the legal route," McCracken says.

Enter CES International (vendor to NIE's $20 million project), which claims