By Dave Hoffman
Concerns over New York State Electric & Gas Corporation’s response during the Halloween windstorm were front and center at the County Legislature’s Nov. 19 Protective Services Committee meeting.
Lawmakers said one of their main concerns was that first responders were not able to reach the NYSEG storm command center throughout the event. As a consequence, these volunteers spent the night without any idea as to when they might be relieved.
A communication breakdown left Putnam Valley firefighters tied up for several hours guarding live wires from a power line that was knocked down on Peekskill Hollow Road, according to the department. While waiting, firefighters had to be dispatched down the road for an identical situation.
Fifty to 100 residences were without electricity during this time, and road closures caused additional problems, with Peekskill Hollow Road being the only east-west thoroughfare in Putnam Valley.
“In Putnam County, a lot of our first responders are volunteers,” said Legislator Paul Jonke, R-Brewster. “It’s getting more and more difficult for us to get these guys to volunteer when – in the case of a storm like this – if they’re babysitting a wire, 2 o’clock in the morning when they may be needed somewhere else, it creates problems for our fire department. The other concern is that we couldn’t get anyone to pick up the phone.”
About 205,000 customers lost power across New York State during the storm, and NYSEG said it was active with 1,200 employees working to fix the outages – all of which was restored within 72 hours. The company said its initial response was compromised due to changing weather conditions, as the more extreme conditions were originally expected to appear in Western New York
Charles Eves, vice president of electric operations for Avangrid, the parent company for NYSEG, agreed that lack of communication was a problem.
“There was a breakdown in communication between us and the county,” he said. “This is an area that we need to flesh out further in our communication protocols to ensure that we can communicate more effectively during storms to get your priorities known by us so we can respond to those.”
NYSEG representatives shared plans for avoiding problems in the future, including looking at staffing numbers, offering crews to assist the highway superintendents, and contracting additional wire guards and damage assessors.
However, some county officials were concerned that these measures may not be sufficient.
“I’d like to know what you are going to do to be proactive because the winter hasn’t really hit yet; the storms haven’t really hit yet,” said Legislator Ginny Nacerino, R-Patterson. “The breakdown of communication was horrendous the last time, and many people were without power for many, many days.”
Legislator Nancy Montgomery, D-Cold Spring, said her district in Putnam Valley had success with training at the local level, in order to ensure lines of communication are open.
“Coming from local government, the biggest frustration of these storms is there is no communication with the town supervisors and the town highway departments, and they’re the ones responding immediately with the fire department, so we actually ended up creating our own (Emergency Operations Center) to deal with it very successfully during (Superstorm) Sandy after all the mishaps with (Hurricane) Irene,” she said.
“We can start there by making sure everybody has that training and that those levels of communication are open,” continued Montgomery. “To me, the problems are solved very locally.”
Patricia Nilsen, director of emergency preparedness for Avangrid, suggested NYSEG run a shared preparedness exercise including everyone down to the local level.
“My team in emergency preparedness can facilitate and help with the design of the exercise,” she said. “We need the local people talking to each other so we understand exactly what the town is going through, what the highway superintendents are going through, what the first responder firefighters are going through.”