Latest PG&E Power Shutdown Left County with Safety Concerns

On Oct. 27, when PG&E switched off electricity to most of Marin, nearly 50 percent of the county’s cell phone transmission sites failed. The next day 57 percent of the cell sites were down in Marin.

by Richard Halstead, The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif. / November 12, 2019
AP

(TNS) — Last month’s power shutdowns by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. left nagging questions about Marin County’s communications system and whether senior housing facilities in the county are prepared for the next shutdown.

On Oct. 27, when PG&E switched off electricity to most of Marin, nearly 50% of the county’s cell phone transmission sites failed. The next day 57% of the cell sites, 134 transmitters, were down in Marin, and the day after that more than 35% of the sites remained offline. No other county in the state had its communications system disrupted to this extent by the power outage.

Marin County Administrator Matthew Hymel said there is a simple explanation for this; PG&E’s power shutdown was much more extensive in Marin than in other counties.

“Marin was the only county that was nealry 100% shut down,” Hymel said. “I think that is why we led on the cell phone issue.”

Neither the state nor federal government currently requires telecommunications companies to ensure that their transmission sites remain functional during power outages. Backup power at some sites depends on batteries that last only a few hours while other sites are equipped with generators and enough fuel to operate for days.

In 2008, the Federal Communications Commission mandated that telecommunications companies provide eight hours of backup power at all cell sites and 24 hours of backup power at all central switching facilities. The FCC dropped the requirement, however, after the wireless industry challenged the order in court.

“The lack of back-up battery capacity was a real eye-opener for all of us,” said Supervisor Damon Connolly. He said that lack of backup power is a “real public safety threat” given that cell phones are many people’s only link to the outside world and the default for reaching people to alert them of an evacuation and other public safety measures.

During last week’s shutdown, Marin residents who signed up to receive emergency alerts via a system known as Nixle were only able to receive message headlines, not the full text content, due to the number of cell sites down.

Supervisor Dennis Rodoni said, “Cell tower outages during the public safety power shutdown proved to be a problem for emergency communication and community updates throughout Marin. Some communities like Tomales, and northwest Marin were under noticed because they lack any cell service.”

On Nov. 1, 23 members of the House of Representatives, including Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, signed a letter requesting a hearing on the role of telecommunications in public safety.

Connolly said, “We believe the FCC can require the providers to address this gap and must do so. We are going to be working with local jurisdictions on letting our federal representatives know what the lessons learned are from these public safety power shutdown events.”

Earlier this year, Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, introduced SB 431, which would mandate telecommunication providers have backup power systems for no less than 48 hours in California’s highest fire risk areas where the majority of power shutoffs have been happening. The bill is in the Assembly committee process, waiting to move forward when the Legislature reconvenes in January. Following last week’s outage, McGuire said he is rethinking whether 48 hours of backup power is sufficient.

Rodoni said he also plans to look into whether it is possible for the county to require a certain amount of backup power as a condition for permitting new cell towers in Marin.

Last week’s outage also revealed how vulnerable some Marin residents living in senior housing facilities are to a prolonged loss of power. Residents at the Villas at Hamilton in Novato and Bennett House in Fairfax were left to fend for themselves when the lights went out.

John Geoghegan, head of the Hamilton Tenant Association, said that the property management company VPM provided no support to its 140 tenants at the Villas during the outage. Emergency lighting in the facility’s windowless hallways functioned for only about 12 hours. A tenant in her 80s tripped over another female resident there who had fallen on a landing.

Phyllis Gould, a resident of Bennett House in Fairfax, which has 70 units, said, “Our management didn’t show up either. We were without power for four days. Our facility houses seniors and handicapped people.”

But in a letter, Mercy Housing California president Doug Shoemaker wrote that property management and resident services staff were on site at Bennett House throughout the multi-day power outage, “conducting daily door-to-door check-ins, providing emergency food and supplies, and whatever other assistance residents have needed.

“Clearly there have been lessons learned that we will put into place right away,” Shoemaker added. “Temporary emergency generators have been installed and will remain in place until permanent generators can be installed as part of the current building renovation.”

Laine Hendricks, a spokeswoman for Marin County, said the county’s health department sent a team to check up on the residents of the Villas and Bennett House during the outage to ensure that they had food and to see if they needed batteries for flashlights.

Hendricks, however, said the management of those facilities is is under no legal obligation to provide any special care for their residents during such emergencies. Hendricks said there may have been a false assumption by some that these facilities provide assisted living or some level of nursing home care while in actuality they are no different than any other apartment building.

“The landlords are not required by the state to evacuate those seniors or provide special services outside of what a landlord would do for their normal tenants,” Hendricks said.

A woman whose mother lives at Aegis Living Corte Madera, which provides assisted living and memory care, said, “Their residents were left in the dark with no hot water and no call button. At least one person was sent to the hospital for anxiety because of the dark.”

John Carpentier, executive vice president of operations for Aegis Living, wrote in an email, “During the recent scheduled power outages, we followed our power outage protocol to ensure the health and safety of all impacted and took additional measures to ensure our residents were as comfortable as possible. Part of the process is to continually make rounds, visiting each resident to ensure we are addressing their needs as they arise.”

Carpentier said a generator was used to power the facilities “life-critical systems,” and residents were given backup lighting to use and three hot meals each day of the outage.

He wrote, “We are working with electrical engineers to modify our electrical panel to accommodate a generator that will provide power to our community in the event of future, extended outages.”

Associated Press contributed to this story.

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©2019 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)

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