Marin drafting plan for power shutoffs

08/14/2019

Elevated fire risk in California has created the need for Marin to plan for another kind of increasingly likely emergency: de-energization.

After its equipment ignited multiple disastrous wildfires in recent years, Pacific Gas & Electric is addressing the wildfire threat by implementing preemptive power shutoffs.

“The point of de-energizing is to ensure, to the greatest extent that we possibly can, that during these specific conditions—a red flag warning, high winds, low humidity and dry fuel loads—we are not causing an ignition,” Mark van Gorder, a PG&E spokesman told county supervisors at last week’s regular meeting. “That is our total and sole objective.”

In response to PG&E’s strategic shutoffs, the county is creating an emergency operations plan focused on the impacts, notifications and coordination of a public safety response to a power outage. The county’s 22 departments are also using the opportunity to create a continuity of operations plan for how the county can maintain its most essential operations in the event of any type of emergency, including de-energization.

County supervisors watched a presentation last Tuesday on the state of emergency planning; speaking were Tom Jordan, the county’s emergency services coordinator, Dan Eilerman, the assistant county administrator, and Kelle Kroll, an emergency consultant.

Although Marin has avoided any preemptive power shutoff to date, a future shutoff is highly likely, especially as fire fuels dry out into September and October. De-energization will last as long as the weather conditions are unsafe, and then for another two to four days while PG&E visually inspects every mile of its power lines. 

The energy company hopes to provide at least 48 hours warning to customers, but a red flag warning from the National Weather Service should be considered a preliminary notification.

“That's our first alert,” Mr. Jordan said. “That means what we really need to look at: Is the phone charged up? Do I have more than a tank of a gas in the vehicle? Is my bag ready to go? Are the caregivers for my children, or maybe a senior in my life, are they squared away? That’s the moment to get prepared.”

An outage could leave residents without lighting, refrigeration, gas, ATMs or cell phone service. 

“There are battery backups to those systems, but they will only last for a certain period of time,” Mr. Eilerman said. “What’s really critical to understand is that individuals, families and businesses need to be aware of these impacts and to plan for them. County government is likely to be as impacted as any resident or business in the event of a shutdown.” 

During a power shutoff, the county’s main goals will be to ensure public safety and support vulnerable populations. Marin County Health and Human Services is working with local senior service providers to create a “list of lists” to get an idea of who might rely on power for medical support. Still, Mr. Jordan doesn’t know how much the county will be capable of in terms of checking on vulnerable people, which is why he’s stressing the need for individual preparedness. 

“If the county government was to put ourselves in a position where we’re offering services that we cannot provide, then that’s really a bad false expectation we’d be creating,” he said.

First responders should be able to help some people, but if the number of people needing assistance climbs into the hundreds, emergency personnel could become overwhelmed.

“Helping [access-needs] and functional-needs populations, that’s really our big focus,” Mr. Jordan told the Light. “You can look to any disaster that strikes, be it [Hurricane] Sandy or Katrina, and it’s really the people who have an access or a functional need, be it a medical vulnerability or something else, that get hit the hardest and have the most significant human impact.”

Depending on the length of a shutdown, grocery stores, gas stations and schools could be closed. If cell phone service cuts out, the county would utilize its organization of volunteer amateur radio operators to provide auxiliary communication services for first responders. Members of Marin County RACES/ACS are permitted and trained in the use of various communication modes, from “ham radio” to the Marin Emergency Radio Authority system.

Ms. Kroll stressed the need for the county to find additional partners. “If you don’t have enough buildings within the county that have generation, maybe have agreements with hotels,” she suggested. Collaboration with inland governments is wise, too, because the whole region’s power could be wiped out. “Have partners, but have them in different areas,” she said. She added that the county can expect about half of its staff to show up for work during a disaster.

The county is using this emergency planning opportunity to create a broader continuity of operations plan, which will describe how the county maintains its most essential services during any type of emergency. Nine departments were identified by county staff as essential: all 22 departments depend on them. By the end of next year, each of those departments will privately document how they can avoid disruption during disaster.

Ms. Kroll asked some of the questions the county must answer as its crafts its plan.

“What can we put on hold and what needs to take place? What are the delegations of authority? Who can authorize expenditures? Who can write checks? Who can authorize deployment for mutual aid?” she asked. “There’s a very small handful of people who hold those keys. How do you make sure that if those people aren’t there, those services can still continue?”

 

Residents are encouraged to register for emergency notifications at alertmarin.org.