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National Grid updates storm response plan

Needham public works crews removed a tree from power lines and traffic lights after Hurricane Sandy passed through last year.

CJ Gunther/EPA

Needham public works crews removed a tree from power lines and traffic lights after Hurricane Sandy passed through last year.

After receiving customer complaints and hefty fines for inadequate response to storm-related power outages in recent years, National Grid unveiled a slate of improvements Friday that company officials said should help ensure that lights get turned on more quickly after severe weather.

Several changes are an effort to address criticisms of spotty communication and lengthy waits customers have experienced before their power is restored.

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“The few major storms we had in the past couple of years [have] really opened our eyes to communicating and communicating and communicating,” said Marcy Reed, the president of National Grid in Massachusetts.

The company has developed weather prediction software with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that anticipates potential problem spots based on the type of storm and past performance of power lines. The utility also is arming its community liaisons and damage assessment teams with tablet computers so they can quickly send images of downed lines and use mapping software to show local emergency officials real-time data on distribution lines and crew locations.

In addition, National Grid has increased its national network of contractors available for storm response by 50 percent, reaching as far as California and Canada, company officials said. National Grid, a British-owned utility with local headquarters in Waltham, has more than 2 million gas and electric customers in Massachusetts.

Although several local utilities have been criticized for storm response in recent years, National Grid in particular has been faulted for its planning and preparations. In a 2011 settlement with Attorney General Martha Coakley, National Grid agreed to spend $2.2 million to improve communications and its modeling software to predict potential problems during storms.

The utility was among three companies that the state fined last year over their responses to Tropical Storm Irene and the Halloween snowstorm in 2011, which plunged hundreds of thousands of state residents into darkness. In issuing unprecedented fines for inadequate storm response — $18.7 million fine against National Grid, $4.1 million against NStar, and $2 million against Western Massachusetts Electric Co. — the state Department of Public Utilities found that the companies failed in their public safety duties. The companies have appealed the fines.

Coakley said she welcomed National Grid’s efforts to improve storm-related communications, operations, and training.

“We are hopeful that these much-needed improvements will help prevent a recurrence of past problems,” Coakley said in a statement.

State officials have noted improvements in the way National Grid and NStar responded to winter storms that battered Southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod this year.

NStar is aggressively pruning trees around transmission and distribution lines and has enhanced remote switches to reroute power around a problem.

NStar has also purchased three mobile command centers that can be deployed during a storm for faster and more efficient responses, said Mike Durand, the utility’s spokesman.

Both National Grid and NStar officials said they are prepared to deal with any potentially disruptive storms this hurricane season and in the approaching winter.

“I think we’re ready,” said Reed from National Grid.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.
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