Friday, October 10, 2008

No Electricity: Middletown Residents in Critical Condition from Lantern Fire

Three people in Middletown, NY were severely burned when their kerosene lantern exploded as they were filling it with Coleman liquid gas Wednesday evening. According to the Middletown Times Herald Record, the family was using a kerosene lantern for light because they couldn’t afford to pay their utility bill. The power had been turned off earlier that day by Orange & Rockland.

According to the story, the family purchased a kerosene lamp for light and heat but mistakenly filled it with a liquid gas intended for outdoor cooking appliances, officials said. This ignited an explosion similar to a bomb. “Hopefully, this is not a precursor to other tragedies that are going to happen because people are not able to afford heat and electricity,” Lt. Paul Rickard said. “When they turn to these alternatives, they don’t understand the risks.” The family, which also didn’t have a telephone in the home, remains hospitalized in critical condition.

A story in the New York Times on October 11 quickly chalks the tragedy up as an inevitable tragedy. When the Lights Go Out, Consequences Are Worse Than Darkness.


Perhaps not.

The Times has published the utility spin:
The utility spokesman said this was the third time the Pedro family had had its electricity shut off for nonpayment.
OTDA policies in last winter's HEAP program, which closed in June, required customers to have stopped payment to access the emergency benefits. See Needy Households Must Stop Paying Energy Providers to Obtain Supplemental HEAP Benefits.

Did the utility receive HEAP benefits but not provide a new deferred payment plan, demand full payment of all arrears, and continue to shut service off over the summer? What steps were taken to help the household access state-funded utility emergency assistance benefits? We do not know what happened, and the utility will likely claim that its customer records are confidential (except when smearing the customer bolsters company spin)

The utility must provide opportunities to avoid service termination through repayment plans and other HEFPA protections. Customers also have the opportunity to obtain review of a proposed or recent service termination by calling the PSC Hotline, 1-800-342-3355. The Hotline staff have the power in appropriate cases to reverse a utility decision to terminate service and if service has been terminated, to direct prompt restoration. For example, if the customer has not broken a written, signed deferred payment agreement, the Hotline can require the utility to offer one. See Utilities Must Offer Written, Negotiable Payment Agreements Before Terminating Electric or Natural Gas Service.

Customers who are about to be terminated, but who lack the financial means to avoid a valid termination should be able to receive emergency assistance from the local department of social services. Utilities are required, in their termination notices, to advise customers of the availability of this aid. There are increased notification duties in the cold weather period beginning in November.

The Times article mentions the federal low income home energy assistance program and increased benefits this year. That program has been closed since June and will not reopen to new applicants until Nov. 3, 2008. There is, however, another program funded year-round, by the state and localities, with benefits available to prevent termination of utility service when alternative payment arrangements cannot be made with the utility. While in some respects more stringent in its standards than HEAP, it is also available to customers who are not eligible for HEAP due to their income or seasonal closing of the HEAP program. See State Utility Assistance is Not a "One-Shot Deal."

In recent years, utilities have been allowed by the PSC to downsize their customer assistance operations to assist customers in securing public benefits to prevent terminations. Providing aid to customers at risk of service termination is not do-goodism, but is an essential part of fulfilling the public interest in continued provision of safe residential utility service. See The Gas Company as Social Worker; Brooklyn Utility Tries Softer Approach to Pursue Unpaid Bills.

Also, lack of a telephone to communicate with utility, social services, or at the end, emergency help may have played a role in the tragedy. According to the Middletown story, the family had no telephone. In recent years, utilities have closed or attempted to close all walk-in customer service offices, requiring all customers to interact with the utility by telephone. See PULP's Motion to Preserve NYSEG Walk-In Customer Services Offices. In the past decade, the PSC has quietly watched as low cost telephone lifeline service to New York State’s low income residents declined by more than 400,000, and a growing number of New Yorkers lack home phone service needed to communicate with service providers and emergency services. See Household Telephone Penetration and Lifeline Enrollment.

PULP believes there should be a thorough, independent investigation of this matter to identify any weaknesses in utility, PSC, or social services practices. Were restrictive utility policies on reinstatement of deferred payment plans, greenlighted by the PSC's Office of Consumer Services a factor? An independent investigation by an out of state consultant with expertise in utility customer service and delegated subpoena power, or by the Attorney General, or by the Legislature is desirable, because it is possible that policies and practices of the PSC and OTDA might have played a role in the household losing its electric service. See PSC Policies Foster Increase in Utility Service Terminations as a Collection Tactic and OTDA Must Relax Its Administrative Restriction on Utility Assistance Loans for Persons with Incomes Above the Public Assistance Level.

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