Power Company Kills Electricity. Three Kids Die The Next Day.
Three young brothers died in a Bronx apartment fire on Friday night. The boys—ages five, two, and four months—were pronounced dead upon arriving at a local hospital.
According to CNN, the horrific fire “was caused by a candle and occurred one day after the power company cut off electricity for unpaid bills.”
In the days since the tragic incident, power company Con Edison has faced a lot of tough questions, including whether they should have cut off power in this case or in any case in which children are at risk.
In my role as a father and someone who trains burn survivors each year, this story absolutely guts me. In my role as a crisis communications professional, I’ve been following this case with great interest. I’ve worked with numerous power companies through the years—and although we’ve never run a drill exactly like this one, we’ve run drills that are eerily similar.
Con Ed spokesman Allan Drury was quoted by numerous outlets over the past few days. He conveyed the same theme repeatedly: Con Ed doesn’t like to turn off power for non-payment, but this family was thousands of dollars past due on their bill.
Here’s what he told CNN:
Con Ed spokesman Allan Drury explained that the apartment’s residents owed “a significant amount … — well into the thousands of dollars.”
“We try to avoid turning service off to customers,” Drury added. “We’ll put them on payment plans to work with them to avoid turnoff, but this account had substantial arrears.”
Mr. Drury added that Con Edison typically tries to avoid turning off power, instead putting customers on payment plans. This particular family, it seemed, fell too far behind.
“There was significant amount of arrears on the account — well into the thousands of dollars,” Mr. Drury said.
The utility said such a move isn’t taken lightly: Five notices are sent that power will be shut off and several attempts are made to contact the customer, a spokesman said.
And customers whose power is shut off can have service restored within 24 hours if they enter into a payment agreement.
“Disconnecting a customer’s service is a measure of last resort,” said Allan Drury, a Con Edison spokesman, adding “unfortunately, when customers are delinquent, that burden is placed on customers who are paying their bills on time.”
This is one of the most challenging crisis communications scenarios imaginable. A spokesperson never wants to be seen as blaming the victims—but in this case, Con Ed had relevant information that explained its decision to cut power. In this difficult situation, Mr. Drury is doing about as well as anyone could.
I don’t believe Con Ed is to blame here. The company has a right to cut off power for non-payment, particularly if they have made a real effort to help past-due customers keep their power on through flexible payment plans. (I’d also hope the state’s energy assistance program helps such families.)
But I wouldn’t stop there. If I was advising Con Ed, I would encourage them to:
- Examine their policies. They should use this incident as a catalyst to look at whether the company can do anything different in similar situations to help families from losing their power—particularly when the customers have vulnerable people (children, the infirm, and the elderly) in the household.
- Increase the fund for low-income energy programs. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, “New York’s eight investor-owned utilities, and one municipal power authority, have low-income energy programs totaling about $20 million per year.” That’s not a lot, especially considering that Con Ed’s two top executives collectively earn roughly that amount per year.
- Start a charity fund or make a donation in the name of the three children who were killed. The money could be used to help other families with young children who are facing similar issues of non-payment.
When tragedy strikes, it’s easy to point a finger of blame. In this case, it appears as if one tragic circumstance led to another; simply pointing at Con Ed seems unfair. Still, any company concerned about being a good corporate citizen can step up, even when doing so may not be required. As a Con Ed customer, I’d feel very good about them if they do.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
I really like the idea of starting a charity fund – ConEd did in fact do what they were supposed to, they followed the rules that they’ve set for themselves but this is an unfortunate turn of events. If they do follow what you’ve set out, it could actually be a positive story for them from a very sad one.
It should be illegal to turn off power and gas during cold months (October through February). These kind of tragedies happen ALL the time.
But I agree, this is a tough one because no matter what ConEd decides to do, it will not bring back the kids who died. They should do something for the family specifically and create some sort of public program to help families in financial trouble.
Thank you so much for your comment.
I agree that poor families shouldn’t go without heat. I’m a bit torn about where that support should come from. A highly profitable company servicing basic needs (e.g. heat) has some responsibility, but so do local, state, and federal governments and charity organizations. As a ConEd customer, I’ll also take a closer look at my bill to see if I can add a few dollars each month to help such families in need. If so, I’d be happy to do my share.
When Dr of Comm at Dettoit Edison in 70s-80s we moved from heels to toes with “Help Us Help You” program to confront issue too long swept under rug. First year alone got 250k customers black on system, meters running for revenue, protection of lives saved and great PR. It can be done. . Think outside the box. mills
That’s a terrific proactive strategy that both inoculates the power company from accusations of not doing enough while simultaneously (and more importantly) helping customers keep their power on.
Thanks for adding your experience to the blog.
I’m amazed they let them get thousands in arrear. TECO shut me off at $300 behind and refused to work with me to spread it out or postpone it even just a few days until payday. It was broiling hot in the middle of summer in FL. I nearly got sick. Unbelievable.