Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - August 20, 2010

Outage shows need for unified communications system

Palo Alto electric-utility crews members who responded to a downed-power outage Saturday afternoon and evening didn't realize the outage had muffled the music at the city-sponsored Twilight Concert some distance south.

But several hundred concert goers and the band commissioned to perform one of the final weekend Twilight Concerts for the season realized it. Puzzled Fotia band members initially milled around, and the concert goers waited, spread around the bowl at Mitchell Park.

Some band members began playing acoustically and some people started Greek dancing, while others gave up and drifted off.

"Our Operations team was not aware of the event at Mitchell Park," city Utilities Director Valerie Fong reported this week. "However, in the future, we'll ask the crews responding to determine whether there are big events being affected by any outage, to the extent they are able. Typically, they will be busy responding to the situation to make it safe, and in this case we had wires down when some tree branches hit our system. "

Power was restored within about two hours to about 80 percent of the approximately 1,500 homes affected, but crews didn't know it was the night the music died in Palo Alto.

"We are working on better communication lines. ... We know we can do better!" Fong said.

Yet despite the good intentions and efforts of many individuals, Palo Alto still lacks an overall, unified "communications system" to assure that the public is adequately informed of outages or other types of emergencies — from hazardous situations such as police manhunts to significant fires or accidents. Why isn't this a city priority?

As we've noted before, if the city stumbles repeatedly on small emergencies, as it has, what will happen when something big and citywide occurs?

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