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Wellersburg power outage sparks debate

September 21, 2018

When the power went out at Gerald Dom’s residence in Wellersburg on Sept. 10, he called West Penn Power to report the outage. He negotiated the twists and turns of an automated system before being told the system could not complete his outage report.

The hollow voice told him a representative would call him back for more information, but no one called. So Dom called again, several times, until he heard a human voice on the other end of the line.

He said he reached a person at the utility company around 3:30 p.m. that day, after his power had been restored, and was told by a representative that no one was available to answer night calls about outages.

“I was flabbergasted,” he said. “Usually there are options. But, my hands were tied.”

According to the utility company and its parent company, FirstEnergy, there was a misunderstanding and Dom was misinformed by a new agent who thought he was calling about connecting or disconnecting service, a service that is not handled at night. There are always agents available for outage reporting 24 hours a day, spokesmen for the companies said.

Dom’s neighbor, Peggy Leonard, who lives in the center of Wellersburg, was in her lift chair at about 6 a.m. when she realized her chair was not working. It was dark. She knew she needed to call her neighbor and the utility company for help. Unfortunately, her cellphone was across the room. She tipped her chair forward and slid to the floor. Scooting on her behind across the living room floor, she finally reached her cellphone and prayed that the batteries had not died. She was able to get through to her friend and to West Penn Power around 9:30 a.m.

“I’m a little afraid of the chair,” Leonard said of the lift chair, which her husband bought five years ago before his death.

Dom said he was concerned for others like Leonard who have physical challenges and need electricity for health reasons. The outage affected about 300 of his neighbors, friends and family.

“It was not a good situation,” said West Penn Power spokesman Todd Meyers. “There is nothing that the power company could do to help her but try to get her electricity back on.”

The only reason Dom would have gotten the automated system was if the West Penn Power agents were overwhelmed with customer calls so the calls were switched by default to the automated system, according to FirstEnergy spokesman Scott Surgeoner. FirstEnergy is the parent company of 10 utility companies, including West Penn Power and Penelec, with 6 million customers in six states.

Meyers said Dom may not have received a return call because the company was already working on the problem, which would soon be resolved. It was a time period when 70,000 West Penn Power customers were encountering outages because of a storm moving through the area, causing flooding and downed trees, Meyers said.

West Penn Power serves about 30,000 customers in Somerset County, he said.

“Regardless of what happened, at the very worst, we had an inexperienced phone agent who gave Mr. Dom the wrong information,” he said.

Dom wrote a letter to the editor about the matter and filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

Commission press secretary Nils Hagen-Frederiksen did not have specific information on where Dom’s complaint is in the system, but he discussed how the commission looks at customer complaints.

“We want to hear from the customers about their concerns and problems,” he said. “We also want to get to all the facts in the situation before we identify how it can be fixed.”

He said the commission takes any complaint about an electrical outage “very seriously” and conducts “a thorough investigation.”

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