Acts of God

Several weeks ago in New England, the rants of angry electric utility patrons filled the evening news.  Accusations of greed and incompetence were plentiful as many homes (including mine) were without electricity after a freak October snowstorm. Magnifying the problem was the disparity of service from community to community:  some communities had power restored in just a couple days while others – even adjoining communities – were powerless for almost two weeks.  For those communities, businesses and schools were closed, and municipal services were limited.  The situation was not dire for most, but it was uncomfortable, disruptive, and, in the minds of many, unnecessary.  I was out of town (in a warm climate) for the whole ordeal, but I was smugly complacent that I had purchased a portable generator earlier in the year for just such an occasion, and that my family, at least, would have heat and hot water while the electric company sorted things out.  The storm was after all, I reflected, an “act of God,” and the utilities could not possibly plan for such lopsided service needs.  But then, I had electric power, so the problem was not front-and-center in my thinking.  I was naively sympathetic as I was watched errant utility company officials decry the severity of the early storm.  “Mura,” I thought, “with so many downed power lines, how could they reasonably be expected to bring the power back quickly?”  The utilities had finite resources after all, I thought, so even Herculean ‘round-the-clock efforts were not adequate.

Yet some towns were up and running within hours of the storms passage while others were only just coming back on line by Veterans Day.  How could this be?   A partial answer to this query came to me as I had occasion to travel by car from Boston to Pittsburgh over the Veterans Day weekend: Convoys of utility trucks – dozens and more – traveled the same route, heading home after weeks of mutual aid.  Some were from states as close as Pennsylvania, but many were much farther from home: Kansas, Texas and Louisiana to name a few.  Distance alone would have delayed response from the more distant areas for up to a week.   Some utilities, it appears had more responsive reciprocal agreements than others.  Later stories in the local papers revealed additional delays in even contacting these overflow contractors.   And in some municipalities, no clear authority to remove downed trees had been given to the utilities. Many small problems combined to delay recovery efforts.   And yet there were also examples of good practice, where power was rapidly restored.   Ultimately there was plenty of culpability to go around and also many lessons learned.

Or were they?    The storm has passed, power has been restored, homes are warm again and businesses are open.  But what has been learned?  Deming Prize Winner, Ryuji Fukuda, points out that railway accidents in Japan were prevalent until a concerted effort was made to understand their causes.   What process exists for municipalities and utilities to learn from major events like the October snowstorm?  I guess we’ll have to wait for the next big storm to find out.

How does your place of business handle lessons learned from problems?  Do they feed back to the process or are they considered “acts of God”?   Let me hear from you.


3 thoughts on “Acts of God

  1. Jason Franchi

    Utility companies with good mutual aid contracts and contingency plans, while good to have, don’t get to the root cause of the outages. Most of these outages are caused by trees falling on power lines. If a town has an aggressive policy for cutting trees away from power lines, then that town will have fewer outages during storms. I’ve heard rumors that this type of preventive thinking is the norm in Canada, as they have laws about cutting back trees, although I have yet to find proof of that, or if they have fewer outages as a result.

  2. Stan Slonski

    Let’s drive to real root cause – the fact that the power lines are above ground. While it will be a significant investment to put power lines below ground, the overall maintenance savings and uptime advantage could make it worthwhile. I know the lines in my own NJ neighborhood are eyesores, subject to continual maintenance and tree cutting, and failed during both Hurricane Irene and recent snow.

  3. Bruce Hamilton

    Thanks to Jason and Stan for their comments. My town, in particular, has an aggressive policy to not cut trees, so we wait for natural disasters to accomplish our release cutting 🙂

    In a more general sense, I am expressing a concern about the lack of a system’s ability to learn from experience.



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