Public safety preparations for preemptive power shutoffs

Agencies are (or should be) preparing for continued rolling blackouts meant to minimize the risk of electrical line-caused fires


In 2017 and 2019, increases in strong, dry wind conditions in the western United States, particularly California, resulted in numerous wildfires sparked by electrical wires and equipment.

To help prevent such fires, in 2019 the state’s major utility companies – Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric – instituted a practice of rolling blackouts, or Public Safety Power Shutoffs, to avert the danger of wildfires being sparked by live overhead electrical lines being downed by high winds.

“The first blackouts were quite a bit of a scramble for agencies across California, trying to figure out how we were going to communicate this to the public and make sure that they’re prepared,” said Samantha Karges, public information officer for the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department in Northern California. “When it first started it affected the entire county, but last year we only saw certain communities being impacted by these blackouts, so they’ve been able to target it more than in previous years. They’ve also been much more communicative to the community at large about when this is going to happen and why, and they’ve been getting a lot better about targeting specific communities.”

To help prevent wildfires sparked by electrical wires and equipment, major utility companies in California have instituted a practice of rolling blackouts.
To help prevent wildfires sparked by electrical wires and equipment, major utility companies in California have instituted a practice of rolling blackouts. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

With more than a dozen major electrical utilities throughout Western states, at least eight currently have Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) plans covered on their websites (Nevada calls the process “Public Safety Outage Management,” or PSOM). With the high potential for a dry, windy fire season this autumn, public safety agencies are (or should be) looking to see how prepared they are for continued rolling blackouts meant to minimize the risk of electrical line-caused fires.

What agencies are doing to prepare

The city of Palo Alto, near the upper end of California’s Silicon Valley, is the only city in California that owns all of its own utilities. The city brokers electricity from the state’s ISO and it is transmitted via PG&E’s infrastructure.

“We have at least three planning scenarios that we’re looking at,” said Kenneth Dueker, the city’s Office of Emergency Services Chief. “One is the wildfire-related outage, the Public Safety Power Shutoffs. Another is if Cal ISO, the Independent System Operator, could ask for rotating block outages to prevent the grid from being overtaxed. And the third one is an unexpected outage, whether that is directly from a wildfire that’s burning equipment, the equipment failed and that’s what caused the fire, or there’s been a cyber or physical attack on our infrastructure.”

Humboldt County has also worked with PG&E to restore the Humboldt Bay Power station, a former generating station south of Eureka that had been slated for decommissioning by 2020. The PSPSs curtailed that and now the plant can be “islanded” – repurposed to provide electricity directly even if the larger grid is shut down.

After the first PSPS, one of the county’s six tribal nations, the Hoopa Valley Tribe, arranged with PG&E to run their community off of generator power; and they are now exploring a proposal to use networked microgrids to provide energy resilience. The Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians, in Southern California’s Riverside County, has been investigating similar options with the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

According to the Microgrid Knowledge website, a microgrid can disconnect from the central grid and operate independently. This islanding capability allows them to supply power even when there is an outage on the power grid. Palo Alto is also looking into the idea of microgrids. 

Planning for training

The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department trains its new deputies in on-duty and personal preparedness, including how to weather these kinds of blackout situations.

“Especially during wildfire season, all of our deputies are trained to be prepared, have a go-bag ready just in case they get deployed somewhere, or there’s an emergency while still at work,” said Karges. “We try to make sure they have plans in place at home so that their families are taken care of in an emergency so they can focus on their assignment. In an emergency, public safety employees don’t really have the luxury of taking care of family members – they still have to go to work and serve the community and help keep people safe. So that’s the biggest thing, making sure that the people in our agency are prepared so we can continue response with very little delay.”

Training opportunities are also provided by the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) Program, a national grant program that assists high-density urban areas in efforts to build and sustain the capabilities necessary to prevent, protect against, respond to and recover from acts of terrorism, but resources such as UASI's Care and Shelter planning toolkit can be helpful for offering planning ideas for extended PSPSs.

“UASI prepares and works with our emergency managers to help with capability-building activities,” said Corinne Bartshire, Emergency Management Regional Project Manager for the California Bay Area UASI. “Our work with care and shelter planning, for example, came in helpful for some jurisdictions when there were public safety power shutoffs, in order for them to provide temporary shelter points or cooling stations, or just places where people can go when they don’t have power, they need to recharge their devices, or ask questions or get information.”

FEMA also provides useful national-level exercises having to do with critical power failure, whether physical sabotage or complicated by severe weather. One of them, updated in 2020, is Managing the Cascading Impacts from a Long-Term Power Outage.

Palo Alto’s solar generator trailer

A couple of years ago Kenneth Dueker decided to supplement his growing fleet of mobile command and support vehicles for the Palo Alto Office of Emergency services with a Solar Generator Trailer (SGT), which was purchased through a State Homeland Security Grant Program.

The SGT was built by WestGen with the Portable Power Pod built by PSI and can support OES as well as city police and fire needs. This small trailer can provide power to an extended command post in the field where the full-sized MEOC isn’t needed, or to provide power to a partner facility.

“This unit removes an Achilles heel from our large Mobile Emergency Operations Center (MEOC), which is going to eventually run out of diesel,” said Dueker. “We can recharge off of another diesel genset or even solar power off of a parking structure, for example, and then we could take that charged-up battery on the solar generator trailer, even in the middle of the night when the solar on top of the generator isn’t producing, and move that power to where we need it to go.”

Palo Alto's small trailer gives the department some additional options that could be essential during an outage.
Palo Alto's small trailer gives the department some additional options that could be essential during an outage.

Advice for maintaining readiness

“It’s really just about building a culture of preparation,” said Karges. “Build that culture within your department and then message that out to the community. A lot of the time emergencies take us by surprise, but if you’re prepared for it and you have plans already in place, then you can do a much better job and you don’t have to scramble as much.”

“Make sure your critical public safety infrastructure, wherever possible, has been tagged by the utility, just like you would a hospital,” said Dueker. “If they have to do a planned outage, they’ll know that it’s critical, so the utility should do that only when they have no other choice,” said Dueker. “And that should include your public safety repeater site up on the mountaintop, because it does no good to keep power going to my 911 center if all our radios just died because the digital repeater, up on the hilltop – or the network gear in between – went offline!”

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