BOSTON – On Thursday, the Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed State Senator Benjamin B. Downing’s (D- Pittsfield) legislation addressing emergency service response of public utility companies in Massachusetts. As Senate Chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, Downing filed this bill after the widespread power outages experienced statewide in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene last August and the record-setting snowstorm in October 2011.
“Thanks to steps previously taken by the Legislature, Massachusetts’ storm response efforts have been better than other states,” said Downing. “But better than bad is not good enough. We can, and must, do better. This legislation builds on previous efforts to improve communication, expedite restoration and punish those companies that fail to comply.”
“I heard from many frustrated residents and local officials during last year’s storms, and we want to make sure our communities won’t run into the same roadblocks they did in August and October,” said Senate President Therese Murray (D- Plymouth). “No one expected power to be restored immediately, but there were people without power for a week or longer in some cases with no knowledge of an anticipated response time. That is unacceptable.”
Downing’s bill requires public utility companies to provide twice-daily estimates to customers on when electricity will be restored following a 24-hour damage assessment period, and to set up a call center during a major storm. The call center must be located in Massachusetts and must have sufficient staffing to handle increases in calls.
Utilities must also report storm outages to the state and designate a community liaison in each community when implementing an emergency response plan. The bill also requires utilities to designate staff at the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency to help coordinate statewide response.
Additionally, utilities will pay an assessment charge to help the Department of Public Utilities pay for storm investigations. The cost of this assessment cannot be passed on to customers. The bill also ensures that any penalties assessed on utilities for violation of emergency preparation and response will be credited to customers.
Finally, to further ensure that public utility companies in Massachusetts improve their response to cities and towns during a storm, the bill extends the possibility of receivership to all utilities in the case of gross negligence. Currently, only Unitil is subject to receivership.
The bill now goes to the House of Representatives.