Throughout October and November, Californians experienced a series of power shutoffs due to utility companies cutting supplies in order to reduce the risk of wildfires. Despite the utility companies giving plenty of notice the outages would occur, some cities were not fully prepared to provide help for residents with access and functional needs.
In the past couple of years, California has suffered some of the most devastating wildfires in history. Between the 2017 Northern California wildfires and the 2018 Camp Fire, 129 people died, more than 27,000 buildings were destroyed, and over 400,000 acres of countryside were burned out. The combined cost of the two incidents has been estimated at $30 billion.
Investigations into the causes of the wildfires found that many were attributable to an unsafe utility infrastructure - particularly aging towers and overhead power lines knocked down by falling trees in strong winds. In order to help avoid further devastating wildfires this year, several utility companies said they would preemptively shutoff power supplies when strong winds were forecast.
The power shutoffs started on October 4 and - lasting several days at a time - continued until the end of November. More than three million residents of Californian towns and cities were impacted by the lack of power including many with access and functional needs - some of whom were dependent on electricity to support oxygen supplies and other medical appliances.
How The Power Shutoffs Impacted Access and Functional Needs Residents
Many cities in California takes their responsibility for emergency preparedness seriously. Many have comprehensive Local Hazard Mitigation Plans and encourage residents and visitors to register for the available mass notification alert service. Despite the efforts, there were many residents who were unprepared for the power shutoffs or were confused when looking at the areas that were going to be shutoff, even with prior warnings.
Julie Miller, a 65-year-old living in Northern California, has cerebral palsy. She must sleep on an air mattress with a continuous flow of air to ensure she doesn’t suffer from pressure wounds. Suddenly, her power was shutoff, when she was not expecting it to be. Her home aid care nurse quickly sprang into action to move her into her wheelchair, as without electricity her air mattress was going to deflate to just a metal base, according to GovTech. “I had to spend the night in my wheelchair,” Miller said. “It was uncomfortable. I didn’t know what was going to happen. It was really a mess, actually. Psychologically, it was a mess. When you’re used to something and things get turned around ... it is pretty stressful.”
For those who rely on electricity for their medical needs, being uninformed about power shutoffs can be life threatening. GovTech explains, “people who rely on electricity in their homes for critical medical needs — everything from keeping their insulin refrigerated to running their motorized wheelchairs or breathing machines — said they feared for their safety if the power stayed out for more than a few hours.”
Tom Watson, a 75-year-old living in Nevada County, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and relies on an oxygen generator to help him breathe. He also uses a power-operated nebulizer to deliver medication every four hours as well as another breathing machine to assist at nighttime. With the 4 day power shutoff, Tom missed a few of his drug treatments and began to feel unwell, congested, and short of breath, according to GovTech. “I’m getting kind of wheezy. And when I take a walk to the kitchen and back I’ve got to sit down and chuck air for a few minutes,” he said. “I wish I had my oxygen then.”
What Lessons Can be Learned from the Power Shutoffs
There are two key takeaways from the power shutoff impact on residents with access and functional needs who rely on electricity to live. The first is that the city has a responsibility to prepare for and inform residents of the services available to them during strategic outages. Every municipality should make any changes clear well in advance to allow for those with medical conditions to make arrangements.
The second is that the cities need a standardized acess and functional needs solution tied to emergency management and 9-1-1. Ahead of recent outages, California's health and safety agencies had sufficient time to work through disparate data sets in order to identify which residents might need assistance in the event of a power shutoff. That might not be the case in the event of an earthquake, landslide, or other natural disaster when resources might need to be deployed in a matter of minutes.
A solution to both these issues is the Rave 911 Suite, which includes the Smart911 safety app that gives residents an opportunity to create safety profiles which are only displayed to 9-1-1 dispatchers and emergency incident managers when an emergency occurs. The app can also be used by local safety coordinators to share community news can be used by individual residents to request help when required.
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