By STEPHEN SINGER
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ The pressure on Connecticut Light & Power intensified Friday with the governor announcing an independent investigation of the utility’s response to last week’s winter storm outages and a local fire department claiming the company’s response has led to safety issues.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he has contracted with an outside firm to conduct an independent investigation into the storm preparation and response by CL&P and United Illuminating, the state’s other major electric utility.
“As soon as everyone’s lights are back on, we need to have a very timely, thorough review of the power companies’ performance to identify what went wrong, why it went wrong and most importantly identify solutions for the short term before winter’s first storm impact,” the governor said.
Malloy said Witt Associates, a consulting firm led by former federal emergency management director James Lee Witt, agreed to complete the review by Dec. 1.
CL&P Chief Executive Jeffrey Butler said he welcomes the review.
Meanwhile, the South Windsor Fire Department said the Berlin-based utility failed to dispatch crews to work with the town, creating dangerous conditions. Dozens of homes remain inaccessible to fire trucks because CL&P has failed to deploy crews to remove downed wires that are tangled in fallen trees, fire officials said.
“Because of CL&P’s lack of action residents of South Windsor could die in fires and homes could burn to the ground,” the department said. “We now feel it necessary to publicly state that we intend to hold the president and board of directors of CL&P responsible for any fire deaths, injuries or property damage in those portions of town that remain inaccessible.”
CL&P spokeswoman Katie Blint said South Windsor had 160 roads closed by debris from the storm. That number had been reduced to 32 by Friday, she said.
“That was just significant damage to that town,” she said. “We have been working closely with them and are going to continue to work with them as closely as possible to make sure they get their power restored as quickly as possible.”
The Republican leader of the House of Representatives also weighed in, calling for a special legislative session to take up a bill requiring additional work crews for utilities, impose minimum staffing levels and other initiatives in the wake of the massive outages.
Rep. Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, said that because the General Assembly is not scheduled to return until February, it makes sense to hold a special session in December, before more storms hit the state. Another consideration is to require utilities to train and maintain emergency standby crews of first responders and retired utility workers, he said.
The governor said he would embrace a special session once the legislature comes up with specific proposals.
Senate President Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, and Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, issued a joint statement saying that as long as people remain without power, “our first priority should be to get them through this immediate crisis and to restore power statewide. There will be an opportunity to assess the impact of this storm and of the lessons learned from Tropical Storm Irene.”
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said low staffing at the utility will be among the areas investigated by officials.
“I’ve been underwhelmed by the planning that preceded this event. It was completely inadequate preparation,” he said at a news conference in Hartford. “Many of the town public works crews were waiting for CL&P to arrive.”
Staffing is “definitely an area that needs to be reviewed and evaluated, but it’s only one of the aspects of CL&P’s performance that needs to be very seriously scrutinized,” he said.
Blumenthal also said the utility needed to be better prepared at the start of the storm last Saturday.
Janine Saunders, a CL&P spokeswoman, said the utility wants to restore power to all customers before focusing on future investigations.
“There’s going to be a lot of time to take this apart and see what works and doesn’t work,” she said. “There will be a time for this.”
Connecticut Light & Power said under 300,000 customers remained without power Friday, down from 830,000 customers without electricity at the peak of the outage.
Butler said CL&P was making progress and more than 1,740 crews were working as more arrive. He repeated the utility’s promise to restore power to 99 percent of its 1.2 million customers by Sunday night.
“People need to keep in perspective the magnitude of damage,” said Butler, whose own home in hard-hit Avon also lacked power Friday, and who said his generator had failed.
He said CL&P is placing a high priority on restoring power to schools and polling sites for Election Day on Tuesday.
Malloy also announced Friday that President Barack Obama authorized additional federal assistance for Connecticut and its cities, towns and tribes. All eight counties are to receive federal help for costs associated with debris removal and overtime, equipment and other expenses, he said.
Malloy said he was preparing a major disaster declaration that would include damage assessments from all 169 cities and towns.
Associated Press writer Pat Eaton-Robb contributed to this story.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)