After thousands of residents failed to receive text message emergency evacuation alerts during some of California’s most deadly wildfires, the California Public Utilities Commission ordered all wireless companies to develop comprehensive resiliency plans to ensure that customers maintain reception during a disaster or power outage.
“Losing cell service is especially dangerous because if the systems are down, people won’t be able to receive evacuation notifications or have the ability to call 911,” state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson said. “This is critically important and, honestly, it’s about time.”
The CPUC’s decision on July 16 created a framework to ensure that wireless networks still will provide reliable access to 911, 211, emergency alerts and Internet services that are crucial to public safety when disaster strikes.
“Last October, Californians who were already impacted by power shutoffs were forced to evacuate their homes,” CPUC President Marybel Batjer said. “In moments like these, Californians rely on their cell phones to receive alerts from emergency responders and access vital evacuation websites.”
Utility companies have implemented a series of Public Safety Power Shutoffs, in which they may shut off electric power to reduce the risk of utility infrastructure igniting wildfires. However, these PSPS events have resulted in a complete loss of cell service for customers at times when staying connected is crucial.
“Communication is a huge priority for public safety,” said David Song, public information officer for Southern California Edison, noting that residents can stay up to date with PSPS notifications on its website.
The recent CPUC ruling requires wireless providers to be ready for these events in order to combat the connectivity problem.
The ruling requires three things from wireless providers. First, they must submit emergency operation plans detailing their protocols for responding to a disaster to the CPUC, the California Office of Emergency Services and local response agencies within 60 days of the decision. The plans must provide emergency points of contact, verification of annual emergency preparedness exercises, and plans for communication with the public during disasters and outages impacting their networks. These plans must be filed and updated annually.
Wireless providers also are required to adopt a 72-hour backup power requirement to guarantee a minimum level of service and coverage during disasters or power outages in tier two and tier three High Fire Threat Districts. Both Santa Barbara and Ventura counties primarily fall within both tiers, with a decent amount of land in tier three.
“The fact that CPUC has done this is terrific,” Jackson said. “It will affect our community very positively because we have equipment in our high-fire areas that has burned.”
The infrastructure for the power backup must be ready for use within 12 months, according to the CPUC.
“Effective communication is paramount to ensure public safety during any wildfire, especially a fast-moving, wind-driven fire,” Capt. Daniel Bertucelli of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department said. “Having the ability to reach those in the fire’s path, through reliable cell towers, allows for messaging regarding evacuations and other important fire-related information.”
Lastly, wireless providers must file comprehensive Communications Resiliency Plans with the CPUC that highlight their ability to maintain the minimum level of service and coverage during a disaster or power outage. The minimum level of service and coverage includes 911 service, 211 service, the ability to receive emergency alerts and warnings, and access to evacuation and de-energization websites, according to the CPUC.
The plans must detail their use of a variety of strategies, including backup power, redundancy, network hardening, temporary facilities, preparedness planning, and communication and coordination with other utilities, emergency responders and the public.
Wireless providers must submit their plans within six months.
The July ruling comes after a previous decision in the summer of 2019 that determined that the California wildfires of 2017-19, as well as PSPS events, revealed failures in the state’s communications network that resulted in a loss of service to customers and “endangered the lives of customers and first responders.”
“Wireless networks are critical infrastructure for emergency response,” Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves said. “Recent events have demonstrated that the days of short, temporary backup power are behind us and that outages are not an option.”