POLITICS

Nova Scotia Power to text message customers to provide updates on outages

10/06/2014 03:38 EDT | Updated 12/06/2014 05:59 EST
HALIFAX - Nova Scotia Power will adopt new measures to prevent a recurrence of the communication snafus that happened after post-tropical storm Arthur caused widespread power outages in July, the province's public utilities regulator said in a report released Monday.

The province's Utility and Review Board said the privately owned utility has agreed to virtually all of its 32 suggestions for improvement, including a recommendation that would see Nova Scotia Power send text messages to customers experiencing outages.

"Texting is a very popular communications channel, one that has been leveraged by utilities in the U.S. to gather outage reports and communicate (during) ... large storms and outages," the report says, quoting a consultant that conducted research for the board.

As well, the board said Nova Scotia Power will overhaul its automated telephone line to provide individualized outage restoration times to callers.

The board is also calling for a revamped interactive online outage map that won't crash when a major storm moves in and Internet traffic goes up.

"The issue of greatest concern to the board is the failure of (Nova Scotia Power's) communication systems to provide accurate information and, indeed, be accessible to customers during the storm and the restoration efforts," the board said.

"Similar issues arose following the storms of 2004 and a great deal of effort and money was spent upgrading these systems, yet, similar problems occurred with Arthur."

The board said Nova Scotia Power has to stop its practice of reporting that power has been restored when fewer than 100 customers remain offline in a given area.

"Clearly, this inability of the system to recognize and predict restoration time in pockets of outages for 100 customers or less is a critical deficiency in the system," the report said.

Nova Scotia Power has been told to provide an update on its progress on Oct. 31, following by a work plan for long-term action by Nov. 15.

The report also says the utility must activate its emergency operations centre at least 12 hours before a major storm hits — something that wasn't done the day before Arthur arrived — and keep it open until all power is restored.

Post-tropical storm Arthur hit the province on July 5, leaving a total of 245,000 customers without power at some point, some of them for as long as eight days.

Nova Scotia Power said it was the most severe storm the province had faced since hurricane Juan ripped through the Halifax area in September 2003, causing widespread damage.

The utility faced intense criticism after its outage website crashed, its customer service phone lines were jammed and customers were repeatedly given erroneous information about when power would be restored.

The board also found there was confusion among some of the crews working to restore power.

"(Nova Scotia Power) noted that during restoration there were instances where tree crews were dispatched to clear trees that already had been cleared by Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal," the report said.

Last month, Nova Scotia Power said it will get more detailed weather forecasting services and improve its website. And the company has conceded its damage prediction model needs a reboot because it failed to foresee the amount of damage the storm could cause.

The board concluded its review by saying it wants to take a closer look at the utility's vegetation management, given the fact that most outages caused after July 5 were the result of trees pulling down power lines.

The board said it needs to find out more about the jurisdiction of municipalities and the rights of the utility and private property owners before it decides whether a separate public hearing is needed.