Utilities tries to inform powerless customers
City to revise policy so it spells out how much outage information is too much — or too little
Hours after Palo Alto's Utilities Department unveiled a new web page to update residents about service disruptions Tuesday, a power outage hit downtown Palo Alto, leaving City Hall and about 180 customers in the dark.
The outage, which utilities officials attributed to an equipment failure, began at about 8:34 p.m. and lasted about an hour. But if any of the 180 affected customers used their smartphones to get information from the city's new outage webpage, they found themselves in the dark. The information wasn't updated until Wednesday morning, much to the consternation of some utility customers, who quickly pointed out the system's failings on Palo Alto Online's community forum Town Square.
The minor episode is emblematic of the Goldilocks dilemma facing the Utilities Department. Palo Alto officials want to inform utilities customers about outages in their areas without having to issue major citywide announcements for every little incident.
They want the alert system to be just right.
To that effect, the city's Utilities Department is now revising its notification policies to determine which types of incidents should trigger an automatic alert to customers and how many people should be notified, Joyce Kinnear, manager of the Utilities Marketing Service, told the Weekly Wednesday.
Several residents expressed frustration with the city's notification system for power outages after a Sept. 24 outage in the Barron Park neighborhood. The outage affected about 1,700 customers and Gunn High School. Many of them tried in vain to find information about the outage online, while some tried to call dispatch but ran into busy signals.
Kinnear said the department tries to update outage data as soon as it can, particularly for larger power failures. Palo Alto also uses a Community Alert and Notification System (CANS), which calls or texts residents during major emergencies. The system merged with Santa Clara County's AlertSCC system last month.
But as East Palo Alto residents learned Tuesday, automatic-calling systems also have their disadvantages. At about 5 p.m., about 1,700 customers received an automated call warning them about a gas leak and urging them to evacuate.
The call, which came from the San Mateo County Office of Emergency Services, was a false alarm. The automatic message was supposed to inform residents about an Oct. 19 community meeting on the city's pending update of its "water master plan." Instead, it was an old — and misdirected — message about the Sept. 9 gas explosion in San Bruno.
About three hours after the initial call, the office called back to revoke its evacuation order and apologize.
In Palo Alto, CANS is only used for major emergencies, Kinnear said. Smaller incidents, such as Tuesday's brief power outage, require a lighter touch. Kinnear said utilities officials are trying to improve their notification procedures for outages by immediately informing customer-services representatives about any service disruptions, so that they can relay this information to customers.
The Utilities Department also sends mass e-mails to customers who want to be alerted about power outages.
The department's new web page, at www.cityofpaloalto.org/outageinfo, is part of this effort, she said. The department also created two other pages — www.cityofpaloalto.org/safeutility (for safety advisories) and www.cityofpaloalto.org/depts/utl/service_disruptions (a front page for both planned and unplanned service disruptions). Though customers who lose their power might have a hard time turning on their personal computers, residents with smartphones can still view the outage page for a quick update.
Tuesday's power failure showed one hiccup in the new system, however, in that it took place in the evening, after regular business hours.
"In the off hours, the page doesn't always get updated immediately," Kinnear said.
She said the department's revised policy on notification will address the subject of timeliness: that is, how long it should take utilities officials, once the outage begins, to post information about it on the new web page.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at email@example.com.