Sometimes a bad storm provides the best training ground for a truly terrible storm. An outage in 2006 taught ComEd lessons that helped it recover quickly from the floods of 2007.
What made BG&E's system more reliable than Pepco's?
Reliability and customer information systems (CIS) are rarely mentioned in the same breath. After all, utilities spend millions on their outage management systems to help ensure reliability. But in the wake of Hurricane Isabel last fall, the CIS at Baltimore Gas and Electric (BG&E) gets kudos for helping the utility keep on top of a widespread outage.
Although BG&E sang the praises of its customer system after the hurricane, neighboring Pepco was left cursing its new system while explaining to regulators and the press why it notified hundreds of customers that their power was restored when it wasn't.
In many ways, the different experiences of the two utilities offer an object lesson in how the humble CIS can make a mighty difference in recovering from a major outage.
"Our [CIS] performed magnificently during the hurricane," crows Tom Pelligrini, director of customer care at BG&E. The company handled more than 700,000 calls during Hurricane Isabel, with three quarters of the utility's customers without power at the height of the outage. In sharp contrast, he notes, was the company's performance during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, during which BG&E processed around 200,000 calls. That low number was due to a limited number of available telephone trunk lines, Pelligrini says. Regardless of the cause, he characterizes the company's service then as "horrendous."
Between 1999 and 2003, BG&E installed several upgrades to its CIS, and it seems to have paid off for the company. Yet in the same time span, Pepco purchased a $10 million CIS that seemingly led to several embarrassments for the company during Hurricane Isabel, including:
- Automated calls to 550 customers stating that their power had been restored, when it had not;
- Customers being told there was no record of any previous outage call, while customers said they had called several times already; and
- Customer service representatives who seemed unaware that neighbors also had called to report the outage in the area.
Publicly, in a letter to local authorities, Pepco President William Sim blamed at least some of the company's woes on its new automated answering system and said his company had identified and corrected the cause of the customer misnotification. A Pepco spokesman added that the company was continuing to review problems with the system.
While all the investigations and reviews were not yet complete at press time, the link between a solid CIS and recovery from a major outage couldn't have been made more clear.
A Tale of Smart Outsourcing
Since 1999 and Hurricane Floyd, BG&E has upgraded its CIS in multiple ways. Pelligrini says that in 1999 the company added a new predictive dialer and new call-management system, among other system upgrades, and also contracted out its overflow calls. In 2000, BG&E upgraded its phone switch and added a second one, and in 2001, it added a new guidance system for its customer service representatives.
Of all these incremental improvements, the outsourcing of call overflow seems to have made the biggest difference in BG&E's handling of outage calls during Hurricane Isabel.