Examination of witnesses (Questions 20
MONDAY 8 FEBRUARY 1999
FALLON and MR
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
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.
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
providedand that is the one that you referred to, Mr Hunter,
the one that did not work on Boxing Dayprovided 14 times
the capability to answer customers who could not get through to
operators. There was a considerable increase in our total call
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 intentionand it is recommended in the reportis
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.
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 scaleand again it was
a scale that we had never ever faced beforesubdividing
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
(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.
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 believedthe
Regulator and the MMCwas 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.