A “staggering failure of common sense” is being blamed for the October 2019 PG&E blackouts that caused more than two million northern Californians to lose electricity, many for days.
We will say something nice about punching-bag utility PG&E for the first (and perhaps last?) time ever on this blog: This year’s wildfire season, while even longer and more severe than last year’s, has not yet been accompanied by the widespread power outages of October of last year. Knock on wood, of course: we just got news today of more possible shutoffs in the North Bay and East Bay that may come later this week, and there were one or two bad days in late September when planned Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) coincided with SCU and LNU Lightning Complex fires. Still, this was nothing like last October when an estimated two million people lost power, some for days on end, with grocery stores and restaurants having to toss literal tons of refrigerated food that had rotted.
So the good news is that PG&E has improved their power shutoff protocol. The “That is so PG&E” news, according to an Associated Press report, is that PG&E staff last year were not trained or certified in emergency management protocols that the state of California has used for decades.
Those standard protocols are known as the Standardized Emergency Management System, developed in 1991 after the Oakland hills fires of that year, and they are considered gospel by smaller utilities like Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric. A San Diego Gas & Electric director told the AP that these protocols are “absolutely foundational” during electrical shutoff situations.
PG&E was forced to admit in legal proceedings that their staff were neither trained nor certified in these widely accepted protocols. “While PG&E typically staffs certain EOC (emergency operations center) roles with individuals having prior emergency management experience, there are currently no positions within the EOC organization structure that require prior emergency management experience, qualifications, or certification,” the utility told a court.
An attorney representing local governments suing PG&E lambasted the utility for ignoring established protocols and inventing their own, calling it “a staggering failure of common sense,” and saying it was like “You are going to build a rocket in your backyard and try to send somebody to space.”
The company now insists that 90% of its emergency staff has completed said training. “We’ve already seen the value of this transition,” PG&E told the Associated Press, “and expect to continue evolving our maturity as we move through the remaining phases of training.”
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