Gallery: UK power networks keep an ever watchful eye on the weather

Fallen tree in Beatrice Avenue Felixstowe, because of St Judes Storm Fallen tree in Beatrice Avenue Felixstowe, because of St Judes Storm

Monday, December 30, 2013
5:15 PM

Flooding fears continue to plague Britain as another band of persistent rain and heavy wind heads towards the UK.

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The latest storm pushing in from the Atlantic was expected to arrive in the west last night, before spreading north-eastwards early this morning.

Yesterday Basil Scarsella, chief executive of UK Power Networks, admitted that the company’s efforts to restore power to thousands of people should have been better

He was reported as telling a national newspaper that the company was not prepared for the storm and too many staff were on holiday.

Suffolk and Essex has escaped relatively lightly in comparison, with power back within 24 hours for 91% of the 900,000 or so homes left without electricity following St Jude’s storm in October.

As high winds swept across the region, electricity supply infrastructure firm UK Power Networks was inundated with calls.

James Cotter, service delivery manager at UK Power Networks, said: “I got in at 5am that morning and I thought we might have got away without too much damage. But as time went on it turned out that the worst case scenario actually happened.”

Suddenly the phone calls started coming in from homes, villages and towns directly in the path of the storm. With top wind speeds reaching around 76mph the storm was the biggest the company has coped with since 2002, and it caused extensive damage to power lines.

Mr Cotter said: “The map which showed where the power cuts were showed a clear line of around 30-40 miles across right through our region. That was where the storm was at its worst.”

UK Power Networks is an electricity distribution network for the east and south east, including London. The company is responsible for the supply infrastructure to 8million homes.

Mr Cotter said the company experienced in one day the usual number of calls it would get in a month.

He said: “It is our job to keep the lights on and when something happens it is us customers call.”

In the Ipswich-based call centre, 190 staff work 24 hours a day 365 days a year answering calls.

Mr Cotter, 32, said the service delivery centre worked through the Christmas period to ensure supply during the festive season – though another passing storm meant this wasn’t the case for some.

He added: “With the best will in the world there will be a problem somewhere. We keep the operation going to make sure customers know what is going on and what we are doing to restore power.”

With an ever watchful eye on the weather – high winds, heavy snow, gales, floods, all can affect the electricity supply infrastructure – Mr Cotter and his team also ensure the most vulnerable in our county are looked after by a specialised customer service team.

He added: “The customer service team includes team leaders, people dealing with faults calls, general enquiries and general maintenance.

“During St Jude’s storm we had a lot of people calling in worried about trees touching power lines and letting us know where issues might be.

“We also deal with new connections to the electricity supply. We would expect between 2,500 and 3,000 calls a day.”

Mr Cotter makes the point that in 1987 the flow and quality of communication and information was much less developed.

He added: “We have a team working on social media – things like Twitter – and that more than doubled during the storm. We had an unprecedented number of people looking at social media as a source of information.”

Since St Jude’s, training has already begun for members of staff in different areas – such as the company’s finance operation – to help in customer services.

Mr Cotter added: “We use each experience to learn and we would like to improve the flow of information to our staff and customers during the next big incident.

“It might not be the quality of information but more how and when we deliver it. We are boosting IT systems to cope when a huge number of people try to contact us.”

More than £1million has been paid out to those eligible for compensation though a final reckoning, which would include costs to repair the damaged infrastructure and the cost of extra staff, has not been made.

Mr Cotter, a father of two, added: “Those days during the storm were the best teamwork I have ever seen. There was a lot of pressure and we all worked together. We pulled out all the stops to get the power back on as quickly as possible.”

So what is UK Power Networks looking out for in the New Year?

Mr Cotter said: “The weather can impact us in so many different ways but we are confident we can deal with whatever comes along.”

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    Henry Insidetheea

    Monday, December 30, 2013