Thomas Graham, regional Pepco president, said his father advised him early on to work for the government or work for a utility company. "And as I just completed my 25th year," he said, "so, I did listen to my dad."
The following is a continuation (Part ll) of our conversation with Graham who sat down with the publisher and staff of The Washington Informer earlier this month. Among other things, Graham shared how he personally felt about a blistering 2010 Washington Post analysis that reported his company "ranks near the bottom in keeping the power on and restoring it once it goes out."
Graham: I never thought I would be with an organization this long. So, I have a lot of love for what I do and the people I work with and my neighbors and friends and family that are in this area--that's my personal commitment to what is going on. So, it did hurt to read the [Washington Post] article. Day-to-day reliability we own and there are things we have to do. When a major event comes in, there are very few things we can do. We respond to what takes place. Back in 2010, we had probably about 4 or 5 storms. They came in back to back to back to back and unfortunately it hit the same group of customers each time in Montgomery County. They were always hit the hardest.
So, do I have an appreciation for the frustration that they feel? I absolutely do. Is there something we can do to prevent a microburst [a sudden violent weather phenomenon that is difficult to predict] or a snowstorm? We can't do that. Is there something we can do to prevent thousands of wires from coming down? There is very little we can do because these wires are coming down because trees have been uprooted.
Now, we do all the trees trimming you want, but when a fully-grown tree decides to come down because the ground is saturated, it's going to come down. But our responsibility—the communications with our customers had to improve. We had problems with the technology on our website which was unacceptable. We had problems with some of the technology that provided restoration times with our customers—that was unacceptable. If you were to call in and find out if your service is out in August and your time of restoration was in October, you would have some concerns about that. We had a technology glitch. We addressed it right away, unfortunately, that information did not get to some of the customers. Those are the things that we own.
WI: Now, that we've moved from analog phones to digital phones and the electricity goes out-- you have no phone service. Over the years with the technology changing, the means of communication is changing. So, being able to get that message out...
Graham: I understand where you're going with that. There is an accountability on our part and there is also responsibility on our customers' part to prepare themselves for an emergency event. Everyone is encouraged to have a hard line. Today, it's all wireless phones in the house. When you don't have service, none of those phones work. So, old-school, plug-in-the-wall, you need one of those. We will start collecting more information on emails, more information on cell phones and we are looking at other means to communicate. We're also looking at should we be on an alert system similar to the District, similar to Montgomery County. We do social media now. They have me tweeting once a month. There are some intriguing comments out there. Another good thing we have is a customer advocate—that is Felicia Greer.
Graham explained the concept of "customer advocate" which came out of a Montgomery County work group. It was determined such a position would benefit customers. Pepco appointed Greer as Director and Customer Advocate, responsible for serving as the voice for customers in the Atlantic City Electric, Delmarva Power, and Pepco Regions. Graham said Greer's primary responsibilities will be direct interaction with customers, governmental and regulatory officials. To learn more about Greer, her position, and how it might affect you, visit washingtoninformer.com.
More than midway through our conversation, Graham shared how one might see him "in places you don't necessarily expect, because, as he stressed, "I want to see what's going on for myself." Like the hit television show "Undercover Boss," Graham said he visited one of the work sites to check on the crew. Dressed in a hard hat, safety glasses, vest and coat, one of the workers asked: "'are you one of Troublemen to come fix a line that was down?'" Another worker who knew Graham's position tapped the unaware worker on the shoulder and said: "He's not a Trouble man."
Graham: I like to be in touch with the people working 16 hours a day for days at a time, away from their families. It's cold, it's dark, it could be raining. It could be snowing. These gentlemen and ladies are working hard to restore service as quickly as possible. So we looked at what our priorities are. One, it's the safety of our employees and our customers and two, getting our reliability under control and the third big initiative is the AMI [Advanced Metering Infrastructure or "smart meters."]
So, we took to heart everything we read in the paper. Whether we agree or disagree, we put together some process improvements that we've already started to implement. We've seen some good results from that as well as results from the reliability enhancement plan that we've been executing all over the service territory. I don't think there is a customer that can't say they haven't seen a truck—either a Pepco truck or Asplundh tree-trimming truck in the Washington area. For a while they were working 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. You can only sustain that for so long, so now they do 5/10s. We went from a tree-trimming force of about 80 to 350.
WI: Are these Pepco employees?
Graham: No, these are contractors and we have absorbed all of the tree-trimming sources from this area. This helped us with [Hurricane] Irene. We were able to mobilize our workforce very quickly because we did not release our contractors to go back to their base of origin. We kept them on the property. Although we had 227,000 customers out of service, we made a commitment to get them back by 7 p.m. on a Thursday and they were all back.
WI: This takes us in a different area, since we're on the issue of contractors. What is Pepco's minority diversity contractor program? I saw a company across the street cutting trees. I would like you to speak to that.
Graham: I can get back to you with all the numbers. It's important to know we have a real commitment to diversity—a diverse workforce and a commitment to diverse contractors. We have an MOU [Memorandum Of Understanding] with the District of Columbia. We also have an MOU with the state of Maryland with an inspirational goal to do about 25 percent of business with minority contractors. Tens of millions of dollars are spent with minority contractors on an annual basis.