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Widespread cellphone, power outages during fires show what could happen after major quake or other disaster

Widespread cellphone, power outages during fires show what could happen after major quake or other disaster

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Widespread cellphone, power outages during fires show what could happen after major quake or other disaster




California saw significant interruptions of cellphone service due to the planned power shut-offs at precisely the time customers needed to be alerted about evacuation warnings — raising questions about how prepared California is for future electric shut-offs and other public safety emergencies, such as a major earthquake.

At one point, Marin County saw 57% of its 280 cellphone tower sites out of service. Other counties also saw major disruptions.

The problems weren’t limited to cellphones. Some customers who get their landline phone service through their broadband internet service provider saw their phone lines go out, despite having their phones charged and equipped with battery backups.

Local government officials and consumer safety advocates were incensed at the widespread phone service failures, which came despite days of warnings that the power would be shut off to help prevent ignition of wildfires by power lines and other electrical equipment damaged from severe Diablo winds.

Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes areas under evacuation during the Kincade fire, said that the cellphone network outages posed significant safety concerns.

Fire stations were forced to communicate by radio, creating excess traffic at a time when officials had to rapidly deliver information about an active fire.

And while evacuation warnings were delivered before the planned power shut-offs, Hopkins said residents in rural communities without cellphone or internet service would have had no way to receive additional warnings.

“Had there been a second fire, had the fire suddenly been reinvigorated and moved quickly toward some of these communities, we would not have been able to effectively communicate with the residents,” she said.

Phone carriers said they did the best they could.

Consumer advocates, however, say the carriers failed to keep phone signals alive at precisely the moment they were needed most — when customers needed to communicate with loved ones and receive evacuation warnings.

There are no federal or state regulations that mandate cell carriers have any backup power for cell service, said Ana Maria Johnson, program manager with the Public Advocates Office, an independent organization of the California Public Utilities Commission that advocates on behalf of consumers.

“What this tells us is that the communications network is vulnerable. It’s not resilient. The companies were not prepared. And requirements must be put in place to require backup power,” Johnson said.

“Consumers rely on their wireless networks to call 911, and they expect those networks to work.”

Expectations vs. Reality

Cell service can be crucial to the ongoing function of society during and after a crisis. Widespread outages of cellphone networks following hurricanes or major storms have been a consistent problem in the United States, interfering with recovery efforts. In Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, residents roamed roads searching for signals; cellphone towers in the New York City area were disrupted after Superstorm Sandy.

We have grown used to instant communication and many have failed to plan ahead for things as simple as designating a meeting place in the event of an evacuation. In fact, experts suggest having more than one designated location for meeting up with family members or close friends. One close to home and then several further out. That way if for example, a fire is sweeping your way from the south of you, you know to go to the meeting spot to the north of you.

You need to be aware of and prepared for the most likely scenario for disaster based on your location. Obviously, if you live in a fire-prone area you need to be prepared for all that entails just as if you lived in a hurricane-prone area you would plan for that scenario. Being prepared can be as simple as keeping extra clothing and blankets along with food and water in your vehicle or it can involve more elaborate planning such as keeping months of food stored in your home and having alternative heat and cooking options readily available.

The other issue that arose during the blackouts in California was what to do if your only means of transportation was an electric vehicle that needed charging.  Those driving gas or diesel vehicles might scoff at owners of electric vehicles right up until they try to find a fuel station that is still open.   Because unless a station has a generator back up, their pumps will not be working.

How well prepared are you to go without what is now considered basic communication and all the other conveniences that electricity provides?

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Contributed by Sean Walton of The Daily Sheeple.

Sean Walton is a researcher and journalist for The Daily Sheeple. Send tips to sean.walton@thedailysheeple.com.

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Sean Walton is a researcher and journalist for The Daily Sheeple. Send tips to sean.walton@thedailysheeple.com.

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