Archive for August, 2017

On Electricity and Communications

By John Weckerle

We join you after a bit of a hiatus (nearly four months) from New Mexico Central Headquarters, which has now been without electricity for something on the order of 29 hours, give or take a few. This has been one of the longest outages in recent memory – we recall one some years ago that made it to about 30 hours – and it is beginning to take its toll on some of the frozen food, at least; there’s only so much ice can do.

We write, though, not so much to lament the loss of foodstuffs as to express deep concern as to how the communications have been handled by our friends at the New Mexico Central Electric Cooperative (NMCEC). We’re seeing a pattern here with respect to getting information out during outages, and we respectfully suggest that there is room for improvement.

Consider this: Several hours after the outage began on Friday, a call to CNMEC led to a recording that 13 transmission-line poles had been blown down by a weather event, and that restoration of power was anticipated sometime Saturday. Another call on Saturday morning brought us to a message that the damage had now reached 18 poles, and that no estimate for restoration was available. And shortly after that, any meaningful channel for obtaining information on the situation simply went dark. We attempted all options on the CNMEC phone system. All went unanswered – even the dispatch line that includes reporting emergencies. That’s right – CNMEC had essentially shut itself off from the world, and had another part of the grid experienced a problem (perhaps in Torrance County, which was essentially unaffected by the situation according to the cooperative’s website), there was no way CNMEC could have received the report.

It was not until 6:40 p.m. Saturday that the following message appeared on the CNMEC site:

We had reports of a Funnel Cloud that hit in the area and with it a roof of a building and it tore down 16 transmission poles. These are 80 feet tall transmission poles with distribution line built under.
Along with the mud and all the debris, it can cause a small army to descend down on the scene to clean up and then put back up the power line.
We apologize for the extended time with out power but our men and women are working tirelessly and some with out time off to get the lights back on.
Estimated time of power to come back in is the evening.

We suggest that this is rather too little information, too late, and as we are now well past “the evening” for most purposes we are beginning to wonder just which evening to which the cooperative was referring. We digress, however, because the main issue here is that CNMEC is missing – and has been missing for some time – the boat in terms of communicating with its members during extended outages.

First, regardless of call-in volume, there should always be some way to report additional outages and emergency conditions. The idea that there is simply nobody picking up the phone – we let it ring several times for five to ten minutes – is entirely unacceptable. There are any number of emergencies that can arise from electrical power or the lack thereof, and the fact that the cooperative was unreachable during this outage is of serious concern.

Second, members should always be able to get reasonably up-to-date information on extended outages so that they may prepare to deal with them. We understand that, while websites based on older technologies may be difficult to update “on the fly,” there are options that allow this – for example, WordPress-based sites (essentially free) or establishing a Facebook page (absolutely free) linked from the CNMEC website that would allow more-or-less real-time updates on outages that members could easily access from cell phones, tablets, etc. even while without power.

We strongly recommend that CNMEC develop a strategy for bringing its communications with its members during outages into the twenty-first century, and do it quickly. It seems absurd that an organization that seeks to sell Internet services to its members would delay in doing otherwise.