Storm of activity at PSNH call center
Public Service of New Hampshire Customer Service Representative Katie Aquino takes a call Tuesday afternoon at PSNH's Call Center in Manchester. (Mark Bolton/Union Leader)
MANCHESTER - The phones start ringing when the first house is plunged into darkness and don't stop until electrical power has been restored to just about everyone.
Customer service agents sit in cubicles in an expansive room in Manchester, listening to people whose lives in the electronic age are in limbo until they can once again take full advantage of everything Mr. Edison contemplated and quite a few things that were beyond even his imagination.
A dozen times or more every hour, for 12-hour shifts, the people who answer the phones at Public Service of New Hampshire's Manchester call center try to be patient and understanding as they hear the complaints of exasperated customers who have been booted from the electronic age by a falling tree limb, a blown transformer or a toppled utility pole.
"It's draining," said Melinda Masewic, a team leader in the telephone call center that serves PSNH and other Northeast Utilities electric companies. "I just remember not to take it personally."
In a crisis, a normal daytime population of a few dozen people swells to 140 or more in the PSNH Manchester call center, taking call after call.
"It can be well over 100 during a shift," said Bob Richard, another call center team leader. "The average is about five minutes per call.
Planning begins when forecasters get the first sense that a serious storm is developing. Staffing levels are increased, overtime is offered and contingency plans drawn.
Power company executives took a page from the books of politicians and sent out a robo-call blast warning of what was to come before New Hampshire began to feel the effects of Sandy. Sometimes, messages are recorded to advise callers that PSNH is aware of particular problems, a tactic that leads some people to hang up.
Several severe weather events have hit the region in the past few years. After experiencing the ice storm of 2008 ice storm, through Hurricane Irene, the Halloween snow storm of 2011 and now Hurricane Sandy, much of the public is now inured to the inevitable result of bad weather hitting an electricity delivery system that relies on above-ground cables.
"We have to answer to the (Public Utilities Commission) and report on minutes of power actually provided," PSNH spokesman Mike Skelton said.
In the call center, message boards keep a running tally of the number of callers to each Northeast Utilities electric company and display the number of callers on hold.
Color-coded numbers can go from an all-is-well green to a what-just-happened red in an instant, a sign that another group of customers is now roughing it.
In a severe storm that brings widespread outages, additional rounds of calls come as people make a second or third call to ask just when the electricity will come back.
One by one each call is answered by one of the room full of agents who take information and explain the situation, while knowing that behind the customer they're speaking with there is a line of others just as frustrated to be waiting for the lights to come back on.
"At the end of the day you're exhausted, even though it's not physical labor," Richard said.
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