California has been struggling to deal with its power shortages for nearly a year. While the problem has been difficult and expensive, its also allowed some cities to invent creative new ways to deal with the challenges surrounding the issue.

In June, Gov. Gray Davis issued Executive Order D-38-01, requiring the California Independent System Operator (ISO) to provide advance notice of potential blackouts, frequent updates and one hour advance notices to utilities and public safety agencies of any firm power curtailments. With this mandate, utilities are required to notify the California Office of Emergency Services, the public, the media and public safety agencies within one hour of an anticipated blackout.

Alameda decided to seek a technological solution to this challenge. The city has developed a system that alerts the public of impending blackouts with ease and efficiency. Terry Ambrose, customer service manager of Alameda Power and Telecom, worked with the utilitys Information Services Department, the citys Information Technology Department and two vendors to create a system that allows citizens to be notified of blackouts via telephone, fax or e-mail.

Recognizing a digital divide among its residents -- only 50 percent of households have access to computers and the Internet, but more than 90 percent of citizens have telephones -- the utility worked with Tele-Works, a provider of telephone- and Web-enabled e-government applications and public information systems, and the citys IT department to provide citizens with a common source of automated information via telephone and the Web. Tele-Works Voice Response System was specifically designed to address the need for power utility providers to supply seamless and consistent notification services for the various power stage levels.

Meanwhile, Exstream Data, which provides high-volume fax and e-mail services, developed an opt-in database for the city that allows customers to self-register for receipt of e-mail and/or fax information from Alameda Power and Telecom. The opt-in database resides on an Exstream Data server, yet can be queried by the client to issue information to the entire database of registered customers or to a subset of that database.

"Our intent [was] to create a vehicle to allow customers access to current information about the California energy crisis, energy-saving tips and other municipal functions," Ambrose said. "With the opt-in database application we can now merge the functions necessary to send critical information automatically through Tele-Works."

"We are very focused on providing residents with access to the most current and helpful information," said Michelle Gitmed, director of Alamedas Information Technology Department. "We operate under three major strategic initiatives: customer service; community and economic development; and employee well-being and productivity. This new notification option compliments all three, especially our commitment to excellent customer service."

"All 34,000 customers in Alameda are invited to be included in the database via their utility bill," added Account Executive Gina Destito. "All they have to do is sign up to be notified in the event of a power crisis."

Island Style

To date, Alameda has not only been an island in the literal sense, but also a sort of island because residents and businesses have experienced no significant rate increases. Among other factors this can be credited to the foresight and action of managers such as Ambrose. The coordination of the utilitys Information Services Department with the citys Information Technology Department was accomplished by IS Supervisor Sue Evans and Gitmed.

"This kind of cooperative spirit is a testament to the ability of government and the private sector to work together to effectively gather information and disseminate news and information vital to the public efficiently and at low cost," said Gitmed. "The merging of these technologies frees up personnel at the city and utility to perform other tasks, saving many man-hours of work. Frequently asked questions can be addressed, and more citizens can be serviced efficiently."

Chris Schellhammer, customer support manager for Tele-Works, is looking ahead. "The next step - is to interface with a standardized data portal administered by the state/ISO folks," he said. "Once such a portal is available and opened up for public-agency access for data distribution, the administration of information will be further refined. The critical stage alert data will be automatically attained and posted to the systems to facilitate incoming and outgoing notifications by phone, fax and Internet."

Gail Robson  |  Special to Government Technology