State utility regulators are likely to ask Washington Water Power Co. to explain its handling of Spokane’s worst natural disaster in decades at a public meeting early next year.
Plans for the meeting aren’t firm yet, said Marilyn Meehan of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.
But such forums have proved helpful in improving customer service following other major emergencies, Meehan said.
“We are interested in how the situation was handled. We’d ask them about their response time, and how they planned for these weather emergencies. It’s an excellent tool for future planning. Everyone learns quite a bit,” Meehan said.
WWP would welcome such a meeting, company spokesman Rob Strenge said Monday.
“We are as interested as the commissioners in learning from this experience. Comments from the public would be welcome,” Strenge said.
The commission required a similar public hearing two months after a powerful Dec. 12, 1995, windstorm cut power to 300,000 people around Puget Sound.
West Side residents also were pounded in January 1993 in what was dubbed the “Inaugural Day storm ” because the outages occurred the day President Clinton took office.
On both occasions, the commission required Puget Sound Power & Light Co. to evaluate its emergency planning after complaints about slow response time and lack of information on outages during the storms.
Puget Power, the state’s largest utility, has 860,000 customers in a nine-county area.
The most recent forum was held Feb. 5, after the utility dealt with lingering problems from last December’s wind storm, Meehan said.
After the meeting, Puget Power set up a sophisticated emergency communication system, which was used for the first time during last week’s regional storm.
“It made a big difference,” said Puget Power spokeswoman Kristen Wappler.
All of Puget’s 110,000 customers who lost power last week have it back, Wappler said Monday.
The utility’s new Bellevue communications center has 200 telephone lines, with a queued system that handles calls quickly and can be expanded if needed.
Wappler used the new telephone system herself when she lost power last week. “I learned 55 others had reported our (neighborhood) outage, and that there were 1,500 people out in my area,” she said.
“I also learned the cause - tree limbs on our lines - and an estimate of when power might be restored,” she said.
The telephone system also is designed to call people back to report when the power’s back on.
“It’s not a perfect system, because we can’t always predict accurately when power will come on. But it’s an improvement,” Wappler said.
WWP does not have a similar information tracking system, Strenge said. “Do we need it on a system this size? We’re not sure,” he said.
Damage from last week’s storm was so severe WWP is still struggling to rebuild the “backbone of the system,” and can’t predict when all neighborhoods will be restored, he said.
As a result of last year’s meeting, Puget made other improvements.
It provided intensive in-house training for all employees on how to respond to calls from the public. That allowed call representatives working around the clock to get some rest, Wappler said.
WWP also has trained its employees to answer telephones in an emergency, Strenge said.
Puget Power also trained each engineer in the central office to become an expert on a small section of the utility’s power grid.
“They know that small piece inside and out, so they can be dispatched during a crisis,” Wappler said.
In the past week, the commission has had only a few complaints about WWP’s handling of the ice storm outages. Nine callers from the Spokane area have called the agency’s Olympia office, Meehan said.
“They’ve said they can’t get through to WWP, or can’t get any information on when their power might be restored,” she said.
The post-storm meeting would be scheduled in WWP’s service territory, most likely in Spokane.
“But first, everyone needs to be hooked up and have some time to reflect,” Meehan said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: When will my power be on?