Hydro Ottawa urged to improve outage info for customers

Some Ottawa city councillors took Hydro Ottawa officials to task Wednesday for their handling of communications with residents after last month’s powerful storm knocked out power to 180,000 customers, some for more than a week.

Hydro Ottawa president and CEO Bryce Conrad and board chair Jim Durrell appeared before council to deliver the utility’s 2021 annual report, but much of the discussion revolved around the May 21 storm — the single most devastating weather event in the city’s history, according to Hydro Ottawa.

While councillors heaped praise on Hydro Ottawa, its staff and executives for their response to the disaster, they also questioned some of the decisions behind the flow of information in the hours and days after the storm.

That included the utility’s decision to remove an active outage map from its website just three days after the storm, and long before power had been restored to thousands of customers. 

Conrad explained that customers were calling to complain the map, which is normally updated every 15 minutes, was inaccurate. 

“In a normal situation the maps work well,” he said. “In an event like this where the entire system has effectively been clipped, you just get one cascading failure over another, which just precludes the map from working well.”

Durrell said the same was true when it came to direct communications between Hydro Ottawa and city officials.

“When you have a small outage or you have an outage in your community under a normal circumstance, you hear about it instantly and you have instant communication with Hydro so you can get to your public. When you’ve got an entire city down, [that] can’t possibly happen.”

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, right, attends an update on the storm cleanup effort on May 24. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Planning for the long haul

Some councillors suggested residents could have used more warning about the potential duration of the outages.

“The message I got from them was, it was lack of ability to plan,” said Coun. Keith Egli, whose Knoxdale-Merivale ward was among the hardest-hit. 

“The silence at times led them to believe it was imminent that power would come back on, so they didn’t make arrangements to book a hotel or go the cottage or go live with grandma and grandpa for a few days.”

Coun. Theresa Kavanagh said she heard the same complaint from residents of her ward.

“Probably what I heard the most was that if you knew power was going to be out for a longer period of time, could you have let people know so they could make plans if they knew it was going to be eight days or more in many cases?”

‘We never gilded the lily’

Durrell pointed out that Hydro Ottawa officials offered daily updates and kept in constant communication with councillors and other city officials, and said Conrad stated from the start that it would take about a week to restore power to the bulk of customers who lost it.

“I will say in Bryce’s defence, and in our communications department’s defence, [that] they did a heck of a good job in telling people how long it was going to be. I don’t know if everybody always listened,” he said.

Hydro crews work to restore power in Ottawa on May 24. (Brian Morris/CBC)

Durrell, a former Ottawa mayor, also said Hydro Ottawa officials were wary of creating “false hopes.”

“That’s the worst thing you can do for somebody. You’re going to be out a week, face it, that’s what’s happening, you’re going to be out a week,” he said. “We never gilded the lily in any way.”

Conrad explained he wanted to get the “bulk system” up and running before offering a more precise prediction. That happed on May 28, one week after the storm.

“Once we had the bulk system in place we would be in a position to provide better data to you as councillors and to our citizens. That is what happened,” Conrad said.

Councillors stuck in the middle

But some councillors were unhappy to find themselves between the power utility and its customers.

“It shouldn’t be councillors and it shouldn’t be city resources that are on the front line providing the information to your customers as they’re trying to get through an outage,” said Coun. Laura Dudas, who urged Hydro Ottawa to find more “innovative” ways to communicate directly with its customers.

“You have the best information. You have the best expertise,” Dudas said.

Communications from my perspective were not exceptional or outstanding.– Coun. Riley Brockington

Coun. Riley Brockington, whose own home was without power for nine days, said he was receiving up to 1,000 calls and messages a day from residents seeking information.

“The frustrating part is, so many of your customers needed information and they weren’t getting it from Hydro Ottawa. The sources were city councillors who were in the field 14, 16 hours a day, some of us without power in our on homes, to try and share that information. So communications from my perspective were not exceptional or outstanding.”

A Hydro Ottawa crews works to restore power in Ottawa’s Carlington neighbourhood on May 22. (Kristy Nease/CBC)

Both Brockington and Dudas said they were wary of bothering Hydro Ottawa for information when the utility was preoccupied with restoring power as quickly as possible.

“So that meant that we’re then putting more pressure on you and your staff at a time when you’re supposed to be focusing on getting the system up as a whole,” said Dudas, who also pointed out many of her residents were unable to charge their devices and were therefore unable to access up-to-date information themselves.

Coun. Shawn Menard suggested Hydro Ottawa explore the possibility of an automated alert system for customers, similar to the messages the city transmits when a winter parking ban is about to go into effect.

Review in the works

Conrad promised Hydro Ottawa will look into ways to improve direct communications with customers, including “dovetailing” the utility’s emergency messaging with weather alerts.

“It wasn’t that we wanted to put you on the front lines,” he told councillors. “It was, that’s the position you ended up finding yourselves in, and we will find every opportunity to communicate better with you and with … residents.”

The storm cost an estimated 25 to 30 million dollars in damage, according to Hydro Ottawa. The utility said its customer service centre received more than a quarter of a million calls, and 3.8 million people visited the utility’s website in the aftermath of the storm.

Hydro Ottawa, which is wholly owned by the city, is promising a full review of its handling of the May 21 storm, including its communications.

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