Communities hesitant to praise new ComEd response plan
A ComEd crew lineman works high on a electric pole to restore power last summer. l Keith Hale~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 5, 2012 11:05AM
COOK COUNTY — ComEd has 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, the 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 pro-active.”
After months of work, ComEd has changed its procedures to reflect the ideas that were 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.
In Evanston, where massive outages in summer 2011 blackened many homes and businesses, officials called ComEd representatives before the City Council last year to answer questions about the power company’s much-maligned response rate.
Among the problems the outages of 2011 caused was the failure of a water utility that serves 380,000 people in Evanston and surrounding communities. Without electricity the city of Evanston had to use backup diesel-gas-powered generators.
But more concerning was the issue of power going out at Evanston and St. Francis hospitals, which city officials said should be top priority for ComEd.
“We had major concerns about what power was getting turned on first, especially with two major hospitals being located here,” said Erin Palmer, community information coordinator for the city of Evanston.
In Lincolnwood, where 129 homes lost power in three major outages during the July 2011 storms, officials expressed similar concerns about ComEd’s ability to address outages in a timely manner.
Previously, decisions on power restoration were made at a centralized dispatch office in Joliet, and were based on the number of customers being effected.
This 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.
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 communication hubs between the communities effected 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.
The Skokie Techny area includes: Northbrook, Bannockburn, Deerfield, Evanston, Glencoe, Glenview, Golf, Highland Park, Kennilworth, Lincolnwood, Morton Grove, Niles, Northbrook, Northfield, Park Ridge, Skokie, Wheeling and Wilmette.
Also, ComEd has developed new communication tools, including two-way texting, a smart phone 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 bend done on it, the probable cause and the approximate restoration time.
In Skokie, village officials say they’re pleased with ComEd’s responsiveness to concerns expressed through the Northwest Municipal Conference about the emergency-response protocol, but plan to continue to advocate for residents if future problems arise.
“It’s a difficult situation when we don’t have control over the power situation, but we’re confident ComEd does the best they can to complete difficult and complicated repairs,” said Anne Tennes, director of communications for the village of Skokie.
Palmer said that because there have been no significant power outages in Evanston since last year, city officials haven’t been able to gauge whether ComEd’s new initiatives have been successful.
“We’re always cognizant of the potential problems that power outages can cause, and we have ongoing concerns about ComEd’s response time and what their priorities are during an outage,” Palmer said. “The problem is that we can’t say the proof is in the pudding because we haven’t had any significant incidents lately.”
Though there have been no major storms to hit Lincolnwood since last summer to test ComEd’s new efficiency protocols, Village Manager Tim Wiberg said the few outages that affected residents this summer were handled well.
“ComEd’s reliability this year has been good,” Wiberg said. “But since we’ve had no major outages, is it a result of the good weather?”