The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

October 26, 2011

Importance of communication biggest lesson for Electric Department

By Adam Smith
adam@athensnews-courier.com

ATHENS — When the high winds ripped across Limestone County on April 27, virtually every one of the 40,000 customers who receive electricity from Athens Utilities were left in the dark.

Small pockets of power did exist along U.S. 72 in the city limits and in a few neighborhoods, but by and large, much of the county was left literally powerless.

Tornadoes had left much of TVA’s North Alabama power grid a tangled mess, and seven main transmission lines at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant were ripped down, forcing the plant to rely on backup generators to keep reactors cool.

It took TVA nearly three months and $25 million to complete work on the grid.

Athens Utilities crews and workers from other states worked up to 16 hours on some days, clearing debris and trying to restore downed lines and broken poles. In some cases, it wasn’t that simple as workers were forced to locate heavy utility components that had been picked up and tossed from their secure locations.

Residents flooded the electric department with calls, and as the days grew warmer and perishable food items were tossed into garbage cans, the tone of some of the calls changed from concern to frustration.

Gary Scroggins, general manager of Athens Electric Department, said the large scope of work wasn’t the main issue in the days following the storms. He said the biggest issue was the department’s inability to communicate with the public.

“As far as the actual construction, we knew what to do there and it was just a matter of doing what we normally do,” Scroggins said. “The biggest problem we had was with communications with the customers because so much of the power was out and we couldn’t get in touch with them.”

Those who were unable to procure a generator or who didn’t have a battery-operated radio had few clues as to what areas utility crews were working in and how much progress workers were making.

Scroggins is proposing a new system that will help deal with those issues in the future. He said he plans to present a plan to the Athens City Council to acquire an outage management system that would route calls to the office. If the volume of calls gets too high, the system would route calls to an outside call center.

“A customer would be able to get through, and that would be the main thing,” he said.

Scroggins said the Electric Department plans to be more proactive in getting messages out to radio and television stations and through the city’s website whenever there’s a mass outage, so customers will be more aware of what’s going on.

He said the weeks of work that followed the tornadoes didn’t give him any new insights on the quality of people who work for the Electric Department, but it may have given the community a new sense of appreciation.

“We’ve been through things like this before, so I knew how good (workers) were to start with,” he said. “But I think a lot of customers were able to see how hard the work can be and how long they have to work.”