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.

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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.”

The New York Times:

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 Wall Street Journal:

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.”

Bronx Fire

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.