Probe into Newark Woman’s Death after Power Shutoff Finds Errors at PSE&G

Tom Johnson | October 30, 2018 | Energy & Environment
Human error and systemic failures at utility cited as cause of delay in restoring power to home of woman on hospice care during heat wave

electric meter
Human errors and systemic failures at Public Service Electric & Gas were blamed for delays in restoring service to a home where a 68-year-old woman on hospice care died hours after the utility shut off power, an investigation by a law firm found.

The death of Linda Daniels, a Newark resident who relied on an electric-powered oxygen supply in the middle of a heat wave in July, has triggered numerous investigations by the state, PSE&G, and legislators regarding utility shutoffs.

PSE&G cut off power to the Shephard Avenue home in Newark on the morning of July 5 because the bill was substantially in arrears. Almost immediately family members contacted the utility, pleading for it to restore service.

Fatal mistakes

While utility employees quickly determined that power should be restored because of Daniels’ medical condition, they made significant, but unintentional, errors in how to reconnect service, according to the investigation by Ted Wells of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, the firm hired to conduct a probe by PSE&G.

“Mr. Wells and his team identified a number of breakdowns, both in our response to Mrs. Daniels and her family and in our customer operations,’’ said Dave Daly, president and chief operating officer of PSE&G. “We take full accountability for our actions and are committed to better serving our customers by fixing these problems with urgency and ownership.’’

Daniels passed away at approximately 4:24 p.m., nearly seven hours after service was cut. The family put ice on her and fanned her during that time, but could not give her oxygen because of the shutoff, according to news reports. Power was not restored to the home until the following morning.

PSE&G has a system in place to prevent shutoffs to customers who use life-saving equipment, giving them a Priority 4 or P4 designation. According to the investigation, company records indicate that Daniels was not enrolled in the program.

Failures of common sense

The investigation found that power was not promptly restored to the Daniels home in part because of repeated human errors and failures of execution and common sense on the part of individual PSE&G employees. Those issues reflect deficiencies in the “process and culture” that prevented the utility from developing and employing best practices akin to the utility’s response to gas leaks.

“To a larger extent, however, the delay in restoration of power to the Daniels residence was not caused by the failures of people, but by deficiencies in process and culture, and also could potentially have been prevented by the deployment of certain technological solutions,’’ the investigation found.

In response, the utility said it was taking steps to address those issues, including resetting its culture “with a renewed commitment to customer service’’ and accountability. The latter has led to changes in leadership and more senior oversight of call centers, according to Daly.

The company also plans to prioritize and escalate medical emergencies and improve technology to speed up restoring power to customers.

Nevertheless, the utility faces prospects of new mandates from the state Board of Public Utilities, whose staff is conducting its own investigation into service shutoffs.

“We want to see how we can make it more unified to avoid a tragic mistake like this is not repeated,’’ said BPU president Joseph Fiordaliso.