Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - March 5, 2010

Editorial: Unacceptable lapse in blackout information

Palo Alto failed to inform community about major power outage Sunday night, raising longstanding questions about readiness for more serious emergencies

When lights and televisions went dark Sunday evening about 8:30 p.m. in large sections of Palo Alto, residents understandably wanted to know what was happening and when power might be restored.

They got no answer from the City of Palo Alto or its Utilities Department.

The Weekly and other news organizations tried in vain for hours to get answers to even basic questions, but couldn't get through to anyone. City dispatchers only would give out a Light & Power phone number that was either busy or kicked the caller back to a stale dispatch recording giving vague information that a power outage was occurring.

Residents finally resorted to informing each other about the blackout, using cell phones and the Weekly's Town Square forum.

This is not the first such "information blackout." A core problem is that police, fire and utilities persons designated as public information officers, or PIOs, have a primary duty of dealing with the situation at hand. They either don't have time or simply forget to tell residents and the media what is going on.

The city did well in keeping the public informed during the 10-hour citywide outage caused by the tragic plane crash Feb. 17, and earlier when a severe storm was expected to hit the Palo Alto area hard. But the plane crash occurred at the beginning of a regular workday, and the storm was expected, though far milder than predicted.

It is after-hours and weekend incidents that confound the city, when people are called back to work to respond to a crisis or emergency — and are least likely to think about the public-information aspect of their jobs. This constitutes a failure in training and supervision, and backup.

Almost precisely a year ago a wayward duck caused a huge predawn outage in south Palo Alto when it ran into a high-voltage line, and nearly three weeks later another outage left 1,500 homes without power. In neither case was the city able to provide timely information, despite a high-tech telephone-alert system and a plethora of digital-age communications channels such as Twitter, Facebook, the city's website and the Weekly's community website (www.PaloAltoOnline.com), and radio or TV news.

City Utilities Director Valerie Fong Tuesday apologized for the lapse in information this time and said in such cases she will pull in a second PIO person to handle communications, freeing the primary on-duty person to find and fix the problem. City officials also are working on restructuring the city's disparate emergency-preparedness programs into a more cohesive network, which should also improve communications.

In March 2009, after the two big outages, the Weekly editorialized:

"As the Weekly has asked repeatedly for years: If the city can't get information out in a timely manner on localized situations, what will happen when (not if) there's a truly major event or catastrophe, when lives may be at stake? Such repeated communication failures seriously undermine community efforts to prepare for major emergencies."

City officials said then they were working on an improvement plan. It undermines public confidence that a year later no such plan is in place, and that the community once again literally and figuratively was left in the dark.

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