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Faulty communication system partly blamed for confusion after December ice storm

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
Many BWL customers spent part of the Christmas holidays in the dark after an ice storm knocked out power.

An internal report finds a key communication system that failed during December’s ice storm had been malfunctioning for months before the storm.

The Lansing Board of Water and Light released the findings of an internal review of its response to the storm last night.  More than 35,000 BWL customers lost power, some for as long as 10 days.

Many customers complained about the utility's lack of communication. BWL General Manager J. Peter Lark says the big problem was the failure of the utility’s outage management system, which gave inaccurate and contradictory information to customers. 

But the outage management system has been a problem since last spring.

“In February it was working, when it was installed,” says Lark. “In May, it did not work. And it took until October to get a fix.”

But that fix apparently didn't take.  The system crashed during the December ice storm, leaving customers without a way to report power outages or find out how long it would be to get their power restored. 

BWL officials insist the system has now been fixed, and Lark says the system has worked during a handful of storms since December.

“One was a 100-person outage.  And one was a 7,500 (customer outage) in the city of Lansing and it performed well on all of those,” says Lark. 

BWL officials say they have made other changes to better prepare the utility for future outages, including contracting with more line crews to respond to outages and hiring more tree trimmers to remove limbs which could fall on power lines.

But members of the BWL Board of Commissioners were not entirely satisfied with the 76-page report.

“I think the report was incomplete,” said BWL Commissioner Dennis Louney. “There’s some conclusions reached and some recommendations … and we don’t provide the supporting material.”  

Louney says BWL administrators were able to fill in some of the information during the meeting, but he wants that data added to the public report. 

Another board member noted that the lengthy report only briefly mentioned preparations for the actual storm that knocked out power to 40% of BWL’s customers.

Louney says this report is a start toward regaining the trust of BWL customers.

“The only way we’re going to earn our customers' trust back is to show them and provide them with reliable power,” said Louney. 

Also at last night’s meeting, BWL officials estimated the storm and power restoration will end up costing the utility about $5 million.   

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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