Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20.  In your review document you recommend a number of changes in relation to refurbishment, an increase in your tree pruning programmes and you have outlined some of that. The fact that you are having to upgrade those programmes would suggest they were less than adequate beforehand. Secondly, as far as the communications issue is concerned, much of the problem that you faced was the fact that 650,000 call attempts were made. That was mostly people ringing between ten and 20 times because they could not get through. If there had been some adequate means in the first place, people would not have had to block up the networks by having to make so many attempts to get through. I have to say that I have some concerns about one of the issues that you are suggesting about people leaving messages. Part of the problem for somebody who is faced with an electricity cut is that they actually want to communicate with somebody and simply talking to a recording machine is not going to cut down on their frustration very much. I would like to have some undertaking that there would be a response back to them as opposed to taking their message on board, which I think will be of little comfort to them.
  (Dr Haren)  We have said that we have a very specific maintenance programme in relation to the tree pruning programmes. We are looking at that maintenance programme again to see how it should be reinforced and strengthened. Somebody raised earlier in the discussion the question of why it is that a tree may be in a condition that it is allowed to fall on a line. We meet a very simple environmental-type issue there, which is that we have to persuade somebody that a tree which is within falling distance of a line and which may come down once every 37 or 40 years should be cut down at the time when we are doing maintenance and that is an issue for us as a community as a whole and it has some environmental connotations. Our experience to date has been that if you try to tell somebody that their tree will fall once in 40 years and we should cut it during a maintenance programme we meet very substantial resistance.

  21.  There is a distinction between pruning and cutting the tree down completely.
  (Dr Haren)  I think the point I made was that that question had been raised with us earlier and I am referring back to that question. In relation to the general tree pruning programme, that affects mostly the low voltage supplies and in low voltage networks what we have indicated in that area is that it is very difficult to maintain a fully adequate tree pruning programme and avoid all of these problems and we will be looking at the possibility of a greater level of undergrounding in that area in the future. As regards leaving messages, we are quite clear in our understanding of how this problem is to be resolved, that if we are to deal with a very large volume of calls ensuing from 160,000 customers off supply then part of the response will be by direct operator handling, but a very major part of the response will have to be by a recorded message system which we have described as being a more advanced system in which the customer will be able to interactively interact with the system and make sure that there is either a telephone number left for a call back, or that the basic off supply information is able to be got into the system. Our judgment at the moment is that that system is absolutely necessary and we have discussed it with the telecommunications providers, we have discussed it with other utilities and we find that that is a component part of the solution that everybody believes is necessary in a situation where you have these vast volumes of calls. Again I think that Mr Robinson referred to the issue of overall less than adequate responses in the refurbishment and maintenance area and again I think I would have to refer back to the earlier discussion. We believe that we have refurbishment programmes on these networks which are right up at the level of industry standard and they are very large programmes in comparison with any other utility and we, the Regulator, yourselves as public representatives and the customer all have to grapple with the tensions which lie between grossly exaggerated investment programmes and adequate investment programmes. What we have been trying to do is to manage a tension which is between the level of investment that is required and the long-term impact upon price. We believe that we have found quite a good balance, but we believe that that balance should be shifted towards a slightly higher level of investment. We have pointed out the level of discussion that we had on that specific issue at the MMC and we are saying that clearly there are issues there on which people take different judgments at different times. We will continue to look at those issues of policy and we believe that the new balance that we are suggesting is a balance shifted marginally in a better direction from a customer viewpoint as regards this type of storm, but we do have to say that in storm conditions on rural networks then there will be customers off supply in very large numbers following hurricane conditions. There will be limits as to what we can achieve on the communications side, but it is our intention to have the best practice solutions that can be found wherever we have to find those solutions.

Mr Hunter

  22.  I think we have probably almost exhausted the question of NIE's response to customers, but there are a couple of points I would like to seek clarification on. I think I am correct in understanding that this automatic messaging system was not available on the 26th December. Can we have an explanation as to why that was?
  (Mr Fallon)  Chairman, the automatic messaging system is a facility that is provided to us by British Telecom. It can take up to 100 simultaneous telephone calls and we can output to these 100 simultaneous callers a single message and we would normally use that message to describe the areas that are off supply and where we have restoration times, to give restoration times. The simple fact of the matter was that, on Boxing Day evening, that system failed due to a fault on the British Telecom network. That fault has now been repaired. BT are in the process of giving us a technical report as to why that should have occurred, but we believe, like many other issues around this whole event, that it was volume-related and again the scale of what was happening here, the fact that so many calls were presented to that messaging system, meant that there was a failure on the evening of Boxing Day. The failure was complex. It took BT some time to analyse what was wrong and the messaging system was not available to us again until the next evening.

  23.  Mr Fallon talked of the increase in capacity and a triple increase since 1997. Does that include the automatic messaging system or are you just referring to those which are humanly received?
  (Mr Fallon)  The tripling that I have referred to was the tripling of calls answered by operators and, indeed, during the 1998 storm we had up to 120 people taking telephone calls. In addition to that, the messaging service that we had provided—and that is the one that you referred to, Mr Hunter, the one that did not work on Boxing Day—provided 14 times the capability to answer customers who could not get through to operators. There was a considerable increase in our total call handling capacity.

Mr Barnes

  24.  My questions are not about the customers getting through but the information that the customers then received and whether they received misleading information about reconnection times. According to the Northern Ireland Consumer Committee for Electricity you were under the illusion that 50,000 consumers were off supply at the height of the storm when in fact there were 162,000. If you thought there were only 50,000 customers out then that would have some impact upon what your responses were going to be to customers and you would have an exaggerated idea as to when people would be put back on to supply.
  (Mr McCracken)  The first issue to address is the issue of what we knew to be the case on Boxing evening. It is quite true that during the course of Boxing Day evening we thought we had something like 50,000 customers off supply. Subsequent analysis showed that to be something around the 160,000 mark. The fact of the matter is that that figure of 160,000 was down to something around 60,000 by midnight on Boxing Day. As I stood there on Boxing night I was a lot more concerned about the remaining 60,000 customers who were still off supply than trying to compute the number that had been off and had been reconnected during the course of that day. It was an extremely chaotic day, I have to say, as you stood there with customers going off and coming back on as lines throughout the system were going back in and coming back out again. The priority for us was to understand what we were then going to face the next day when we got the squads out to do repairs. The first thing that needs to be said in relation to reconnection is that our response to this event was total. The fact that we thought we had 50,000 at one point in the evening and it turned out to be 160,000 had no bearing whatever on the turnout that we made either prior to or during this storm. Everybody was available and that was some 90 per cent of the staff that are required to be made available to tackle this storm were made available the next day. We knew by the next day we had very very extensive damage throughout the system. We knew by the next day there would be customers who would be off supply for many days and that is purely a function of the amount of damage that you have scattered throughout Northern Ireland and the number of people you have to go out and repair it. We had squads working four and five hours to put one pole back on day one or two which put some 2,000, 3,000 or 4,000 customers back on supply immediately and by the end of it we had squads doing exactly the same amount of work to put two and three customers back on. The amount of work required to do it was exactly similar.

  25.  The Consumer Committee also claim that when people did get through there was often confusion about the information that they were required to supply. Sometimes they would be asked for their postcode, which obviously was of great value in being able to respond to what was occurring, but sometimes they were asked what zone they were in and they tended not to know the zone. Is there not a consistent approach as to what customers are going to be asked for in order to assist them?
  (Mr Fallon)  The issue was raised by the Consumer Committee. We are not aware of any description of zones within our organisation. The normal question to a customer would be their postcode. We can identify them by postcode and we can identify them by name and address. The zone issue is not something that we were aware was a particular problem.

  26.  How far were the problems internal in terms of field staff supplying information back to key centres about what was occurring, as to whether that information was actually being given in order that action could be taken on behalf of consumers?
  (Mr Fallon)  Mr Chairman, in a situation such as we had, with many thousands of customers off supply, obviously the flows of information from the field back to the centre can be very difficult, especially when the people in the field are giving their best efforts to get customers restored. The issue was compounded by the fact that there were multiple faults affecting customers. We did have situations where perhaps we had a main line that was faulty and perhaps 1,000 customers connected to that main line. When the main line was restored, then the best information that we had at that point in time was that all these customers were back on supply. Many of them would be back on supply, but some were affected at lower voltage levels. This did give confusion regarding information and really we were dependent on those customers telephoning us again to tell us that they were still off supply so that we could identify their problems. As we have heard, there were problems with the telephone service and that led to further difficulties. All I can say is that we gave customers the best information available to us when they telephoned. Sometimes that was incorrect because they perhaps had problems in their own local service or a lower voltage than the fault that we had just fixed at that point in time.

  27.  I represent an English constituency in the East Midlands. At the time of the East Midlands flotation of shares for privatisation we had a similar problem in that lines were down all over the place. The thing that people were very dependent upon was local radio. Of course, local radio is only fruitful if you have battery operated radios. I understand that there might be problems with that in some of the areas in Northern Ireland in that the information that the local radio station could give out would not be available to people whose electricity supplies were down. Have you come across that as a problem and are you determined to make use of local radio in order to pass information over to consumers, and could any action be taken in order to ensure that people had access to radios when their electricity was out?
  (Mr Fallon)  Mr Chairman, it is our experience that people do listen to battery radios when power supplies are interrupted. They also make a great deal of use of radios in their vehicles, particularly in situations which are normal working days. Obviously this was a holiday so perhaps not many people would have been driving around in vehicles and listening to broadcasts. I think what we can say is that we definitely could have made better use of local radio stations to convey information to customers and that would have helped with the problems that Mr Robinson was referring to earlier where customers were making repeat calls because they did not have adequate information. It is quite clear that our intention—and it is recommended in the report—is that we will investigate the use of local radio stations and use these to better effect in any future emergency.

  28.  Could I ask whether you made use of assistance from other companies such as East Midlands? I believe when the East Midlands crisis occurred one of the bodies that did help them on that occasion was Northern Ireland. What were your connections and links with local authorities?
  (Mr Fallon)  We made use of a number of different organisations. We made use of Southern Electricity who assisted us on a contract basis to help us with restoration. We made use of Northern Utilities Services Limited who are an associated company of Northern Electric and again they assisted us with the restoration effort. We made use of British Telecom in call handling. They provided us with facilities to expand our call handling capability and with up to 40 additional operators to take calls. We did explore and use these additional facilities and again it is a recommendation in the report that we would look at this and see how we could expand the use of other organisations in any future situations.

Mr Donaldson

  29.  When my colleague Mr Barnes was posing the question about zones I was tempted to suggest that maybe when the customers were asked which zone they were in they might have said the twilight zone! In respect of the information that was available to your customers, we have talked a lot about the quality of your response, but I want to touch on the quality of that response in terms of the information that was available to your customers. In your report you touch on the difficulties that you had in obtaining information from the field back to the call handling centres and getting that information back to the customer. We have already touched on your experiences in the 1997 storm. Were there issues arising out of your experience in 1997, in terms of accessing information and then relaying that to customers, from which you were able to learn lessons and implement in terms of your call handling system as it stood prior to the storms on Boxing Day and, if so, what were the lessons learnt? How were they implemented? Where did they fall down? What are your plans in terms of improving intercommunication between your engineers and your staff on the ground and the call handling centres and then relaying that quality information to the customers?
  (Mr Fallon)  Mr Chairman, it was a measure of the extent of the storm that not only were electricity supplies affected but there were many public communication services affected as well and, indeed, our own internal communication which depends on mobile radio and operates from hill top sites was affected. Many mobile suppliers who operate from hill top sites were similarly affected. During the course of it, particularly on Boxing Day and the day that followed, we did have difficulty with communication from the field using either mobile or radio telephones. We had learned from 1997 that this could be a problem, so we had made more extensive use of cellular telephones and many of our people in the field, in addition to having our own private radio systems, would have had mobile telephones. The other thing that we learnt from 1997 is, in an emergency, the subdivision of the organisation of management is extremely important and therefore we put in place a regime which involved a group of people at each of our five main districts who collated that information, used it to manage the resources within their district or to move resources about to deal with restoration and at the same time passed that information back centrally so that it could be communicated to customers from our call centres and, also, so that it could be passed on to the media. We have also established three main call centres within our subsidiary company Sx3 with the increased resources that I referred to in order to be able to handle telephone calls. I think the issues that we have learned this time round are that the use of mobile communications was extremely useful and we would want to extend these. The other main issue that we learned during the storm was that in something of this scale—and again it was a scale that we had never ever faced before—subdividing into five units was insufficient, so during the course of the storm and on the Sunday we divided into 13 units and we tackled it on that basis. What we will now be looking to do is to strengthen that arrangement in terms of the management of these 13 units and communication for future emergencies.

  30.  There are two aspects to that answer: one is a management issue in terms of how you arrange your response to these situations and the other is the question of the infrastructure you set in place in terms of mobile communications for your people on the ground. I found that I had a lot of constituents who were saying to me that they were not able to get specific information. Even in the very latter days of the crisis they were unable to get specific information about the locality. Indeed, there were occasions when they were being told their area was back on line again when in fact it was not. To that extent what you seem to be saying is that you have put these systems in place and what we are going to do is build on them. Are you confident that in terms of the flow of information the systems that you have in place this time, even if they were not of the quantity that you would have desired, were of a quality to deliver the kind of specific information which customers needed, particularly in the latter part of a prolonged loss of supply?
  (Mr Fallon)  Chairman, clearly we have said in our report that we intend to improve these systems. The systems that we put in place, as I said earlier, would have been of sufficient quality and sufficiently strong to be able to handle something like Christmas 1997 or very much greater than that. I think what we now have to look at is we have to strengthen the infrastructure and that will be by looking to our own communications and communications of public suppliers to make sure that sufficient arrangements are in place regarding standby generators etcetera, should their communications sites fail. There are issues around infrastructure. On the management side, or I might prefer to call it the organisational side, yes, we will be reinforcing the structure that we have round these 13 centres and building on the very very sound escalation plans that we actually had in place for this Boxing Day emergency, building on them, learning from this experience and making sure that we are putting improvements in place so that we can deal adequately with a repeat emergency of this kind.

  31.  But all of that requires money and, as has been referred to earlier, the Northern Ireland Consumer Committee for Electricity are saying to us that although there is planned spending in terms of improving that infrastructure, in fact what we are seeing is an acceleration of planned spending rather than additional expenditure being made available for that infrastructure. Would you like to comment on that? Could you also give us some indication of what the estimated cost of the proposed enhancements to your customer communications systems is likely to be?
  (Mr Fallon)  The recommendations that we have made are in three areas as far as expenditure is concerned. The first thing is that we are proposing an additional £2 million to be spent on our messaging system, that is the interactive voice response and I would make quite clear that that is £2 million in addition to the system that we have already procured. That £2 million was not in our business plan prior to Boxing Day, therefore it is additional expenditure. Similarly, the £24 million that we are putting forward for additional refurbishment, as described in our report, is additional expenditure in the sense that this is work over three years that will be further to the investment programme that we have planned already. The £2 million for the call handling and trouble management systems, which are the customer service information technology systems, were planned and they are being accelerated and we hope to deliver some of the benefits of these this year.
  (Mr McCracken)  Mr Fallon had made the point about the £2 million on call handling technology we will be investing in this year and it is new expenditure that was not in the business plan. Page 5 of the report actually says it is already planned and that is incorrect. In relation to the £24 million in new investment in the network, that £24 million is additional to that category, i.e. the refurbishment of the rural network, but it will be funded either by avoiding or deferring capital expenditure and other categories, so there is no net cost to the customer in doing that.

Mr Salter

  32.  As someone who has worked both as a scaffolder and as a true labourer, can I put on record my admiration for your linesmen and engineers for working in what must have been appalling conditions. Can I also put on record my incredulity at a management structure that replaces the poles that snapped in 1997 with precisely the same poles that they break again a year later. Is there not somewhere out there, given that we can put a man on the moon, a pole that will not break when it is windy?
  (Mr McCracken)  The straightforward answer was it was different poles that broke this time round.

  33.  It would be quite incredible if you had put the same ones in, even for yourselves!
  (Mr McCracken)  I believe it would be quite incredible and we did not. Obviously the poles that were used a year ago would have withstood this storm and would not have experienced any damage. The report shows that the vast majority that were affected were between 25 and 40 years old.

  34.  Can the people of Northern Ireland take it that in your on-going refurbishment programme you are planning to use precisely the same poles that have failed on two occasions in the future?
  (Mr McCracken)  What the refurbishment programme will do is renew poles that have seen a significant level of deterioration with new poles.

  35.  But the same sort of poles, yes?
  (Mr McCracken)  Yes.

  36.  Why is that?
  (Dr Haren)  Chairman, maybe I could try to make sure that I understand the question. There is no pole which is one year old which we expect to see snap in a new storm from 1997 to 1998. What we are seeing is a small percentage, i.e. 0.3 per cent of a population of 400,000 poles, some of those poles in the age range 30-35 or 35-40 year old, coming under stress in a storm condition where the storm condition will be a different set of storm conditions with different sorts of stresses on the network and breaking different poles than the storm in 1998 to 1997. The serviceability of the poles is not an issue. The question is whether the poles have a serviceability that can carry them through the 30 to 40 year period or whether we should plan on asset replacement which is on a shorter lifetime basis.

  37.  Are you going to be replacing poles more frequently than you were before or not?
  (Dr Haren)  What we have tried to describe is the refurbishment programmes that we have in place which we all believed—the Regulator and the MMC—was satisfactory for the type of weather conditions that we meet on networks in the British Isles. I think it may be that we will have to look at whether we are facing different weather conditions going forward or whether we should have a different policy. We have indicated that we are going to accelerate our programmes, and we will also look at the issue of policy of whether asset lifetimes as currently construed as being up to 40 years should also be revised.

  38.  So the answer is yes?
  (Dr Haren)  Maybe I could have the question again Mr Salter and I will try it again.

  39.  Are you planning to increase the frequency of replacing these poles in the future?
  (Mr McCracken)  What we are planning to do is to reduce the duration with which poles that are liable to be subject to damage will be on the system.

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