WHO HAS IT, WHO DOESN'T
THOMPSON-OKANAGAN - When the power goes out, so do most of the things we depend on for life and business — lights, refrigerators, internet, air conditioning, point-of-sale machines, cash machines — and depending on which power company you use, so does information.
The Thompson-Okanagan is divided between Fortis B.C. and B.C. Hydro for power delivery. You don’t tend to notice differences in either of them until the power goes out and you want to know when it will return. Then the differences are vast.
For years now, the website for B.C. Hydro, a Crown corporation, contains instant information — when the outage occurred, maps of the outage, how many homes and businesses impacted, probable causes and estimates of when it will be back on.
With Fortis, you’re in the dark. The company deals with unexpected outages through its Twitter feed and 1-800 number. (The differences don’t end there: B.C. Hydro responded to a request for an interview on this subject within a couple of hours; Fortis B.C. took well over 24 hours to return a call.)
Dag Sharman, spokesman for B.C. Hydro, says information — especially accessible for mobile, since desktop computers are useless in a power outage — is what people need when the power’s out.
“It’s definitely a conscious strategy,” he says. “We know people really need to know about power outages when they occur, when the power will be back on. They have to have confidence in the system.”
Unplanned power outages trigger notifications through the smart meters installed throughout their service area to their central command. It dispatches service crews who are mandated to assess the cause and provide information about when power might be restored as soon as possible.
“People rely on power for many different things, whether at home for medical equipment, baby monitors, freezers, you name it. Most people understand that outages will occur but if they know when the power might be back on, they can make do.”
Details about the extent of the outage are automatically generated and posted to their interactive outage map.
“That’s when it goes onto Facebook and Twitter. They are still estimates but it’s prudent to give the public as much information as possible as soon as possible,” he adds.
Sharman says social media has been a game-changer for utilities, allowing them to both send and receive real-time information about outages.
It’s what they do with that information once they have it that appears to separate B.C.’s two biggest power providers.
At Fortis, they rely on the public for outage reports and ask people to navigate their phone system for updates. Otherwise, Twitter is its main source of communication. Rarely do they inform news media of smaller outages through news releases and it carries no specific information on its website.
“We try to keep the public and the media informed during services outages. If they want to report an outage or have questions about them, they can call our 24-hour emergency line (to) ask about estimated time of restoration,” Fortis spokesperson Michael Allison says. “In many cases, when there is an outage, if they can’t fix it from our system control centre, crews will have to be dispatched to physically assess the line and see where the fault has occurred. That does take time, depending on the terrain.”
Allison says that’s when the Fortis digital team gets involved, sending out tweets to anyone who has folllowed them as well as local media.
“We send out Tweets to people who are active in sharing. We share that information for immediate broadcast, although we don’t solely rely on that, but being able to have that message carried is valuable.”
The company puts services alerts on their website and prepares key messages for the emergency contact centre and its media hotline.
“Media are typically interested in the cause of the outage, while customers tend to want to know if there’s going to be electricity available at dinnertime,” he says.
The main difference may just be in the so-called smart meters. Fortis B.C. is in the midst of installing them throughout its service area and Allison says the company is exploring the possibility of installing interactive mapping but cost plays a role.
“One benefit would be a swifter response to to outages. Right now, customers have to call in and report an outage for us to determine who’s being affected. Another benefit could be something like a mapping system online. We’re still investigating the economics of that to make sure it’s in our customer’s best interest. We have to measure the net benefit against the cost that customers would incur.”
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