Before 800,000 people lost power in Connecticut’s latest monster storm, the electrical workers union was trying to meet with the governor to alert him to dangerously low staffing levels. The governor didn’t have time.
That word came Monday from Frank Cirillo, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 420, as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy took to the skies to survey statewide damage that is leaving swaths of Connecticut without power.
Cirillo’s union repeatedly sought to meet with Malloy after Tropical Storm Irene because of what it said were problems revealed in its aftermath with Connecticut’s level of preparedness. Cirillo Monday called Malloy’s decision not to meet with the union “idiotic.”
The union sent Malloy three communications and two letters requesting a meeting to talk about staffing levels following Tropical Storm Irene, Cirillo said.
“I’m nobody special, but the union is in charge of the largest gas and electrical system in the western portion of the state,” Cirillo said. “You would have thought we would have received at least a call.”
“If you’re going in for surgery you want to talk to the surgeon, not the hospital director,” Cirillo said Monday.
Turns out the whole thing may have been a miscommunication.
“We received Mr. Cirillo’s correspondence and asked that Commissioner Esty set up a meeting to discuss this issue with him,“ Colleen Flanagan, Malloy’s spokeswoman, said Monday. “We were extremely disappointed to learn today that the meeting never happened, but we were assured it will be scheduled this week.”
Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Daniel C. Esty is now in charge of the Public Utility Regulatory Authority, which oversees utility rate requests.
The meeting may not have averted a widespread power outage, but Cirillo believes it would have started an important dialogue and possibly led to legislation mandating the number of linemen Connecticut Light & Power should maintain.
But aside from staffing, work hours are also an issue for the union.
Like with Tropical Storm Irene, Cirillo said they’re only allowed to work 16 hours on the job and 8 hours off.
“We’ve been doing this for 120 years,” Cirillo said. “We’re big boys. We know when we’re tired.”
Cirillo argues the company should allow the linemen and tree crews to continue working.
He said this is not the first storm the state has experienced and it won’t be the last. But he said the system is so unreliable they’re “conditioning people to go out and get generators.”
Cirillo said if there’s any lesson to be learned from this storm, it’s that it’s time the state starts talking about staffing levels at the utility companies. He said when Massachusetts deregulated its market they put in specific language to address staffing levels, but Connecticut’s legislation is silent on the issue.
Cirillo contends the number of linemen has dropped over the years and the current number is insufficient to deal with the day-to-day operations even without the storms and emergencies.
Connecticut Light & Power said Monday that they have 500 line and tree crews in the field and 600 mutual aid crews are en route, while 1,000 have been requested.
Earlier Monday morning Jeff Butler, president and CEO of CL&P, said the company had one crew in every town.
One crew in every town may sound good, but a crew is just two guys and a bucket truck, Cirillo said.
“Two guys aren’t going to do shit,” Cirillo said. “They’re just cutting wires free so the towns can clear the roads.”
In 2007, Cirillo testified before the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee and told them that in 1976 — with around 850,000 customers — there were 430 linesmen. In 2005, with 1.2 million customers, CL&P was down to 190 linesmen.
Currently, CL&P has about 203 crews, 50 regular contractors, and will bring in another 1,000 crews from other states to help restore power. It is still working to bring in more out-of-state help.
In August, Butler didn’t dispute the fact that the number of line crews the company had was down from its peak in the 1970s.
He has said the number of crews on the property in August was similar to what it was in 1985 during Hurricane Gloria. He said then there were 267 crews, while today there’s 252 crews, a number that includes about 50 contractors.
“I can speak for the behalf of the entire industry, there’s probably fewer line workers within the utilities today than there were in 1985,” Butler said back in August.
Cirillo said Malloy shouldn’t be listening to Butler.
“These guys got the idiot governor convinced they know what they’re doing,” Cirillo said.
But Malloy isn’t the only state official Cirillo believes has been fooled by utility executives.
He said his union was also rebuffed by Rep. Vickie Nardello, who co-chairs the Energy & Technology Committee. He said they gave her everything she asked for at the public hearing and received no response.
In a phone interview Monday Nardello said she has the information Cirillo submitted and was too busy with other legislative matters to review it until recently. She said she read all of his testimony and even placed phone calls to CL&P today urging them to keep staffing levels going 24-7. The information will be reviewed again Thursday when Nardello meets with legislative leadership to go over the House’s recommendations following Tropical Storm Irene.
Nardello, who is currently in the dark herself, said she’s been checking in with CL&P three times a day to get the latest information about the outage and was interested to hear Cirillo speak about the staffing updates he’s receiving from the field.
Cirillo said there’s currently no mutual aid crews working with his crews in Norwalk or Monroe. He said his union members in Monroe couldn’t finish a restoration there because they couldn’t get a tree crew to clear the trees. He said when his guy called into the office he was told they didn’t have any tree crews.
“I don’t know how many people could have been put back up if there had been a tree crew,” Cirillo said.
He said CL&P’s Torrington work site doesn’t even have power. He said they’re working on backup generation which means there’s no hot water for the guys to take a shower when they return to the site.
Janine Saunders, a spokeswoman for CL&P, was unable to confirm whether the Torrington work site was working on backup generation power, but said the Berlin work site was affected by the outage and was using backup power.
She said employees of CL&P are also in the dark, so they understand what their customers are going through.