Saturday, February 24 , 2018, 2:00 am | Fair 38º


For Utility Companies, Disaster Preparation Begins Far in Advance of Emergencies

Utilities serving Santa Barbara County — including SoCal Edison and PG&E — have procedures for preempting and responding to a number of disasters

Southern California Edison crews respond to downed power lines following a wildfire. Click to view larger
Southern California Edison crews respond to downed power lines following a wildfire. (Ernesto Sanchez / Southern California Edison file photo)

Responding to and recovering from all sorts of disasters and emergencies — from earthquake to fire to flood — invariably require electricity, gas and water.

These staples of modern life can also pose a hazard when their infrastructure and equipment are damaged.

        |  Emergency Preparedness 2017  |  Complete Series Index  |

As rare as catastrophic events are, utility companies maintain emergency procedures outlining how to maintain and restore their services, and how to avoid dangerous equipment malfunctions.

“Safety is our most important priority,” said Mark Mesesan, spokesman for Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which serves north and central Santa Barbara County.

“There’s a wide gamut of things that can happen,” he said.

Those include not just earthquake, fire and flood, but mudslides, lightning, avalanche, desert windstorms and human-generated threats like cyber-attacks.

The most common issue utility companies like PG&E and Southern California Edison encounter, however, is weather knocking trees into power lines.

Anyone who encounters downed lines is asked to keep clear of them and call 9-1-1 right away.

Both companies coordinate with fire and police departments, Caltrans and other public agencies to restore power and curb safety hazards as soon as possible.

Step 1 is taking stock of and mitigating a scene’s dangers. From there, company personnel and first responders isolate the incident to the smallest workable area, and re-route power from other sources if need be.

During widespread service outages, the companies will work with government partners to triage their power-restoration strategies.

Critical infrastructure like hospitals and police and fire stations are the top priority.

“We work pretty tightly with the state agencies, the county Emergency Operations Center folks, as well as with the first responders on the ground,” said Robert Laffoon-Villegas, a spokesman for Edison, which serves the county’s South Coast.

With incidents that one can see coming, like a wildfire or storm, Edison can stage personnel and materials at threatened sites to preempt or respond quickly to any failures or emergencies, he said.

Restoration work can’t proceed, however, until first responders give crews the green light to operate in the affected area.

In cases like February’s powerful rainstorm, PG&E shut down some of its generators for safety reasons.

“Fortunately, the grid provides some flexibility that allows (the company) to pull power from other sources,” Mesesan said.

Utility companies’ preparedness plans are accompanied by regular practice. Laffoon-Villegas described monthly and quarterly drills that Edison workers undergo to practice responses, damage assessment, restoration and inter-agency cooperation.

Relying on utility companies’ power are local water purveyors like the Goleta Water District.

During an extended outage, the GWD has back-up generators for some of its facilities and has a standing contract to use others’ generators in the face on an emergency, district assistant general manager Dave Matson said.

“The biggest one on our radar screen is always an earthquake,” he said.

A large-enough temblor can disrupt the Goleta Water District’s 270-mile network of pipelines, and, if it sufficiently damaged the Tecolote Tunnel, would cut off the South Coast from Lake Cachuma and state water.

Matson said the GWD’s response to a disaster would be specific to each emergency, but the district would be able to serve first responders, Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital and minimum public health and safety needs.

The two crucial caveats in any emergency situation, he noted, are power for operating wells and no significant damage to the distribution system.

During a crisis, GWD customers can find timely emergency information about their water on the district’s website and social media. The GWD would also pass on information and updates to the couny Office of Emergency Management.

Likewise, Edison and PG&E customers can find information about the state of their service on the companies’ websites, social media accounts or on local radio and TV stations, which receive informational updates from them.

“In the opening stages of a major incident — say, a major earthquake here in Southern California — information will be very fluid, and could be very limited at the outset,” Laffoon-Villegas said. “And then we would strive as we mapped our restoration efforts to keep the public informed.”

Edison and PG&E also offer safety information and up-to-date maps of service outages. Click here for Edison safety information and click here for the Edison service outage map. Click here for PG&E safety information and click here for the PG&E service outage map.

“We really strongly encourage our customers to have similar emergency plans at home to prepare for anything that might happen,” Mesesan said.

Following the directions of first responders during an emergency is vital to both personal safety and service-providers’ ability to respond to the emergency.

The same goes, Laffoon-Villegas noted, for an individual’s personal responsibility to help others during a disaster, while staying out of responders’ way.

“Those sorts of things are very important,” he said.

        |  Emergency Preparedness 2017  |  Complete Series Index  |

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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