Northern Ireland

Winter water crisis - a communications disaster

Man filling water cans from tank
Image caption The lack of information caused huge annoyance among consumers

What really annoyed customers during the winter water crisis was the difficulty they had in getting through to NI Water.

Time and again customers were left hanging on the phone, as they tried in vain to get information about how long they would be off supply.

The report by the Utility Regulator lays bare the truth about just how ill-prepared the company was to deal with the avalanche of calls they received.

It shows how the call-centre was swamped, and explains why people couldn't get onto the company's website, even though they were being told to go there for information.

It wasn't the big freeze, it was the big thaw that presented the problem.

Temperatures rose quickly on Boxing Day and frozen cracked pipes began to haemorrhage water.

NI Water had identified Boxing Day as the thaw - but they weren't to know that it would happen so quickly.

When the calls about burst pipes started to come in - more than 6,000 that day - they had just 14 people answering phones. That day 80% of calls went unanswered.

Engaged tone

The peak of the communication problem was on 28 December with tens of thousands of people experiencing supply problems.

On that day there were more than 400,000 calls from customers. There were 50 staff in the call centre. Not surprisingly in those circumstances, most callers got an engaged tone, or weren't answered at all.

The report says NI Water had contingencies for bringing in extra staff, but conceded these were insufficient.

The report shows the contingencies amounted to texting existing staff and asking them to volunteer for work.

Echo, the call centre company which handles the NI Water call centre contract, also tried to source staff from its other clients.

But it was the holidays, and most workers were off with their families.

The report shows that the appeal for more staff produced 13 extra people to answer phones between 26 December and 27 December, at a time when the call centre was experiencing unprecedented levels of activity.

It took the drafting-in of extra staff from the NI Civil Service, and 20 additional call handlers from Thames Water, at the end of December, before the numbers in the call centre rose significantly.

The report also finds that the extra staff drafted in didn't know their way around the company's systems or processes and answered calls simply by taking messages.

That delayed the transfer of vital information to NI Water's engineers who were trying to get to all the leaks.

Thaw predicted

The utility regulator says in the report: "Given this level of response, we can only conclude that the procedures in place for increasing resources within the call centre were totally inadequate and very poorly administered.

"This is especially the case when the thaw was predicted to occur when it did, on 26 and 27 December."

And to make matters worse, the way the call centre was set up, meant NI Water staff sometimes couldn't make outgoing calls when they really needed to.

There were 210 lines coming into the call centre, but none of them had been ring-fenced for outgoing communications.

That meant incoming and outgoing calls competed for a free line, and as we now know, there weren't very many of those.

That bad winter was the second in a row. But the report shows that, in the early days of the crisis at least, fewer staff were working in the call centre than at the same period the previous year, even though the weather then had had a less serious impact on the network in 2009/10.

And even when the call volume increased dramatically, NI Water couldn't get enough staff into their call centre.

By way of illustration, a table in the report shows that on 28 December 2009, the call centre took 3,479 calls and had 48 staff answering phones.

On the same day in 2010, at the peak of the crisis, the call centre took 403,420 calls and had just 50 staff working there, an average of 8,068 call per worker

The NI Water website was the company's preferred way of getting their information out, and as the crisis unfolded, they told people to go there for updates.

But the utility regulator's report shows that website was set up as a corporate/public relations tool, rather than as one dedicated to customer service.

Cyber attack

It was developed in such a way that the most it could deal with was 20,000 hits a day.

If it got more than that firewall protection prevented further traffic to the site, believing that it was coming under some sort of cyber attack.

It was 28 December before the company realised it had a problem with public access to the site, removed the firewall and increased the hit capacity.

It was the next day, three days after the start of the crisis, before it was operating in such a way that it could deal with the volume of hits it was receiving.

The regulator also found that the website did not have a postcode search facility for consumers to check if their area was likely to be affected.

The report concluded that the general lack of accurate information may well have led some customers to store water when they didn't need to, thereby making the problem worse.