The Private Citizen / "In the dark"
We were among the 4,000-plus Fairfield households that lost power during this weekend's storm. For us, it was a moderate outage, more than the typical couple of hours, but well short of the four days without power that we experienced during the 1985 hurricane, and that some unhappy Fairfielders are experiencing this week. According to Congressman Jim Himes's office, it could be Saturday before power is fully restored to another 39,000 customers between Westport and Greenwich.
We've been through this before, and we have learned from it. In our part of the world, electrical power service is carried along telephone poles, where it is vulnerable to wind and falling trees or tree limbs, and so our power goes out about once a year or so. Curiously, we almost never lose anything else, even the telephone. Others aren't so lucky -- for instance, a house that relies on a well water can lose its water supply, if the well pump is electric, and a house with a sump pump can have the opposite problem, too much water. Friends of ours came down from Greenfield Hill to our house for showers during the 1985 outage, and other friends called to borrow our bilge pump to use in their basement.
Our new gas furnace uses an electric ignition (unlike our last one, which had a pilot light), so when the power went, so did our heat. (Luckily, we have several fireplaces, but unluckily, not much dry wood.) We had stashed, in a single, accessible place, more than a dozen working flashlights from pocket-size to lanterns, and easily a dozen spare batteries. With a gas stove, we could cook, and our gas-fired hot water heater was unaffected, but I had to outwit the electric coffee maker: I bypassed the reservoir and coils and poured boiling water from a kettle straight onto the grounds in their filter-basket -- after I had first gone out and bought ground coffee, because my coffee grinder is electric. We are a patient and resourceful people, and when we know what we have to cope with, we can adapt.
The big variable for us was, how long were we going to have to hold out? An outage of a couple of hours is barely enough time to rouse out the flashlights and find the candles. An outage of several days, on the other hand, can mean making alternate arrangements for heat and perishables, even for us, and a whole lot more -- eating and bathing come to mind -- for many families. So, how do you find out how long the power is going to be down?
The answer in Fairfield seems to be that you don't. Saturday night, we were assured by a neighbor, who had spoken to another neighbor, who had heard it from the repair crew right there outside her house, that the power would be back by 10:45 that night. I suppose what they really meant was, they would have that particular break fixed by then. The next morning, I tried to find out how long the wait would be, this time. I phoned the United Illuminating (UI), and learned that it was a good idea to prepare for possible outages by stocking up on batteries and filling the bathtub with water, but I didn't get to speak to a person and I didn't learn anything about this weekend's outage. I tried the police -- not 9-1-1, the regular number -- and learned that I should call the UI. I tried the town's emergency management office, and learned that its regular office hours were Monday through Friday, and that the shelter at Fairfield Ludlowe was open. I tried the selectmen's office, and nobody picked up. It did not occur to me to call my congressman. I got in the car and drove to the shelter, and to town hall, but I didn't see anybody to ask. And I learned that residents of Westport and Stratford do not seem to have this problem; apparently, there are numbers they can call. There are still thousands of households in Westport that don't have power, but at least they have an idea how long it will be.
Sunday night, after a prompt or two from our ninth grader, we called the dedicated phone number the Board of Education maintains for school cancellations. It answers with an announcement: the date, and the fact that all Fairfield Public Schools would be closed (or not). So the necessary technology already exists. All that's needed is a dedicated phone line, an updated recorded announcement, and widespread knowledge that this is the number to call for information about today's power outage, or flood, or blizzard. The UI's announcement could cover the essentials in a few words: "Today is ... Sunday ... March ... 14. There are ... four ... thousand ... four ... hundred ... customers without power in the town of ... Fairfield. Most service will be restored by ... Monday ... March ... 15 ... at ... 10 ... o'clock ... p.m. If your service is not restored by then, please call again and you will be able to speak to a customer service representative at that time."
That's all it would take. Perhaps the other utilities will develop public information phone numbers, too. Perhaps they will put little peel-off stickers with the phone number into their bills, and perhaps the people who now get inquiries from the frustrated public -- the emergency services, the town government, the congressman's office -- will have a phone number they can give out.
Perhaps. It would be better than leaving us in the dark.