The home-state Carolina Panthers were facing off with the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 in only their second championship bid in the team’s 21-year history when the power went out for about 600 members of Tideland Electric Membership Corporation.
Line crews descended quickly on the scene of a broken crossarm on the Pantego, N.C.-based co-op’s Lowland circuit, but the fact remained: Television sets, refrigerators, and lights were off all along that feeder. Frustrated football fans were in the dark.
Heidi Smith, the co-op’s manager of corporate communications, still shudders a bit when she recalls that game day more than a year ago. “The outage lasted pretty much the whole game,” she says.
Fortunately, she had some helpful communication tools to take a bit of the sting out of the event, if not the Panthers’ 24–10 loss.
“We kept posting the score on our Facebook page,” she says, so members could turn to battery-powered laptops and phones for updates. She also put up a link to a real-time, online game tracker.
But more valuable by far, both on that Super Bowl Sunday and during the all-too-familiar weather-related outages the coastal co-op battles year-round, was the ability to send cell phone text messages to affected members who had agreed to accept such alerts, letting them know why the power was out and when it would be likely to flow again.
“That’s what people really want to know,” Smith says.
‘Defined by Water’
More than 10 percent of Tideland EMC’s 22,500 accounts have opted into the co-op’s text notification service, and the number grows every time Smith promotes the program at community events.
“There’s an ad in today’s newspaper,” she says during a springtime interview. “I really try to do a big push before hurricane season.”
Tidal surges and waterspouts, hurricanes and heavy rains, swollen streams and high winds all make serving the coastal lowlands that make up Tideland EMC’s territory a near-constant challenge, Smith says.
“We are defined by water,” she says. “Our service territory is the largest estuary area in the United States, and one of the islands we serve is a three-hour ferry ride away.”
In those circumstances, occasional outages are a given, and they can sometimes take days to repair. Consumers need ready access to good information about the scope of power problems, their causes, the status of restoration efforts, and the expected duration of the disruption.
From the co-op’s side, that information must be quickly and accurately delivered to the right consumers and, if possible, in a way that minimizes the amount of time and effort that hard-pressed operations staff have to spend responding to calls.
For the past five years, Smith has been balancing both sides of that equation with her text notification program. She’s had the help of TextPower (NRECA Associate Member), a message-service contractor, for all of that time. Numerous other companies offer similar support for utilities.
“We realized we had to develop a much more robust communication system with our members, especially with multi-day outages,” Smith says. “What I like about this service is the ability to craft custom messages. The way we utilize the service, it is not an automated message to say, ‘Your lights are off, your lights are on.’ Because that’s kind of apparent, and it’s almost annoying.”
As the co-op’s communications director, Smith is the one who makes the call on when to send a text message reporting an outage. She’ll set the program in motion for as few as 50 services without power.
“I’ve set a pretty low threshold for dispatchers to call me,” she says. “I’ll make a decision on whether to send the text message. And I can do that either from my computer or my iPad. I could do it from my phone too, as long as I can see the keys.”
The TextPower dashboard Smith uses allows her to message all participating members or only those on selected circuits. She can set a specific time for the announcement or send it immediately.
She keeps her messages brief, both because cell carriers allow her only 160 characters per message and because she doesn’t want to tie up her consumers’ time, attention, or technology with much more than that.
“Opt-outs are the kiss of death in a program like this,” Smith says. “So we try to be real sensitive to our members’ level of technology and need for information.”
Taking the Pressure Off
Members also appreciate knowing how repairs are going, she says. “If people just see progress is being made, that helps a lot. You can say, ‘We started the day with 10,000 people off, and by noon we had that down to 5,000, and by 6 p.m. that was down to 1,000.’”
Smith has put a few non-members on her alerts list. “We have support services, first responders, and evacuation centers, like our schools,” she says. “It’s very helpful to them to know that there’s an outage. They know what they need to do going in.”
When parts of the co-op’s service territory have to be evacuated during hurricanes, she continues, members need all the information they can get to plan their next steps. Questions arise about the most basic of concerns, such as how long to hold a hotel room.
“For the outage during [Hurricane] Matthew, we text-messaged folks that we did not anticipate transmission being up again within 24 hours,” Smith says. “We had to set up that expectation that this was a day-to-day thing. Because at some point during each day, people had to make a decision about letting their hotel rooms go.”
She takes pride in the ability of Tideland EMC’s field crews and operations staff to forecast restoration times. There was a time when the co-op tried to avoid predicting when the power would come back on because it was too easy to disappoint the members, she says.
“We still try to under-promise and over-deliver,” she says. “But we’ve got this down amazingly well now. When the crews tell us the time to expect the power to be back up, they’re usually not off more than 15 minutes.”
In part, that may be because the text-message consumer alerts have taken some pressure off the control center.
“It really reduces the amount of labor involved in answering calls,” Smith says. “It’s just incredible to see the call center traffic. It drops to nothing.”
Texting members does carry some legal risk, according to those working on the issue at NRECA. That risk was recently reduced though by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), says Martha Duggan, NRECA senior director, regulatory affairs. In a July 2016 ruling, the FCC determined that utility companies are allowed to use automated calls and text messages to convey information regarding things “closely related to utility service,” like service outages and potential service interruptions, to customers who have provide their cell number. Prior to the July ruling, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) prohibited such communications to cell phones without prior consent from recipients.
Even with a member’s consent though, Duggan says there are still risks. For example, when a consenting member drops or changes their cell-service provider, the old number can be reassigned. Automated calls or texts to the reassigned number, she says, could result in legal liability under the TCPA.
The FCC does allow for a one-call “safe harbor” to reassigned numbers, but Duggan says the provision is complicated and a co-op could still find itself in violation of the TCPA.
“The reassigned numbers issue means that co-ops who use automated calls and texts will have to be vigilant about their call lists,” she says, adding that any co-op looking at such a program should consider having the plan reviewed by legal counsel. “The cost of running afoul of the TCPA can be significant.”
Smith says Tideland EMC’s texting service is only part of its overall communications effort.
“We’ve got such a high number of people on Facebook, over 5,000 followers. As a matter of fact, because of the private messaging feature, I had dozens of people private messaging me during one outage. I messaged back saying, ‘Have you heard about our text-messaging service?’ and about half of them signed up for it.”
The co-op has a Twitter feed, which works best for keeping news media informed, Smith says. “And we’re doing Instagram because that’s what the young people like. It all depends on demographics. You sort of have to bring it all.”
There’s a safety payoff too, she says. Because of the weather threats her co-op faces, a substantial number of members have backup generators. Those without an automatic transfer switch often run their generators much longer than needed because they don’t realize power has been restored. The text message alerts them to power restoration so they can shut their generators off.
Tideland EMC has even surprised some seasonal members with the service, she adds.
“We have a lot of summer cottages and hunting cabins,” she says. “It’s always been interesting to me to hear from people who live in urban areas. They are just blown away by the service we are able to provide. These technologies allow small utilities without deep pockets to do big things, really impressive things.”
But what she likes most about the text service, Smith says, is that it ends up being an extension of the friendly relationship the co-op has with its members.
“They’ll text us back, and all of them are nice. But some are really funny, talking about their beer getting warm or something like that. We actually enjoy reading them. We had a brief transmission outage one recent evening, and we told everyone what the estimated restoration time would be. When power was restored we signed off with, ‘Sweet dreams.’ Everybody loved that.”
It’s a little odd to be bonding with electric consumers in the course of a power outage, Smith says. But just staying in touch makes all the difference in the world.
“Things are worst during an outage, but this service has allowed us to be at our best. These sorts of tools have forged a great relationship with our membership.”