Utilities tries to inform powerless customers

City to revise policy to spell out how much outage information is too much or too little

Hours after Palo Alto's Utilities Department unveiled a new webpage to update residents about service disruptions, 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. on Tuesday night and lasted about an hour. But if any of the 180 affected customers used their smartphones to get information from the city's new 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 the 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 outages. Palo Alto also uses a Community Alerting and Notification System (CANS), which calls or texts residents during major emergencies. The system merged with the countywide 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, is also part of this effort, she said. Though customers who lost their power might have a hard time turning on their personal computers, residents with smartphones could still log on for a quick update.

Tuesday's outage complicated this system because 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.

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Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 13, 2010 at 5:59 pm

Since land lines are unlikely to work in an outage (unless you have an old cord phone) the best way to get the information out is by texting to cell phones.

Like this comment
Posted by researcher
a resident of Stanford
on Oct 13, 2010 at 7:08 pm

Cell phones can easily fail in emergencies too. I was in one of the research buildings on the Stanford Medical School campus and remember a blackout hitting the area back in 2009. Office land line phones went out because the phones needed AC power. Cell phones turned out to be useless as well. The nearest cell tower was taken down by the blackout so all cell users were rerouted to a cell tower located downtown. The surge of calls and texts of people contacting one another about the blackout overwhelmed the cellular network for ATT and verizon. I remember getting some error message saying, "all circuits are busy, please hang up and try again".

Old cord phones would've come in handy that day. I keep one with the emergency kit just in case cell phone sites fail in an emergency.

Like this comment
Posted by Hubert
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 14, 2010 at 10:36 am

Every form of communication is subject to failure, when the power goes out. Analog phones will be more available, in general, that digital phones for long periods of time.

Cell phones are becoming extremely important sources of communications, so it would pay for the City (or someone) to track cellphone tower outages also. Most private sector telecommunications providers don't like to share this information, but as smart phones are opening up doors that require 100% uptime, perhaps it's time to have the State require that these towers be adequately provisioned with power, and to provide on-line information about cell tower outages/service interruptions.

The telephone system generally boasts a 99.999% availability, but this was for the analog/(digital backbone) system. Cell phone availability adds additional variables that decreases communications reliability.

Like this comment
Posted by who cares
a resident of Triple El
on Oct 14, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Utilities managers claim that the outage occured "after regular business hours" therefore complicating "the system". Jeez, thought delivering power was a 24/7 business. Why not just claim that they're unable to inform the public of outages and quit making false claims and creating feel good programs spurred on by the city manager to make every public incident answerable. Maybe the city manager and utilities manager should be held accountable. Too funny!

Like this comment
Posted by PG&E Lineman
a resident of another community
on Oct 14, 2010 at 6:08 pm

Let me get this straight. There was a power outage after hours. Palo Alto electric personnel responded from home, diagnosed the problem, found a solution, got the power on through a redundant system, and had everyone back on in one hour. If you were in a PG&E area this would have taken much much longer. Now people are all up in arms about not being notified in time, give me a break. Tell you what, if all the lights are out in your home and your neighbor's home, you are experiencing a power outage. If you heard something that can help the utility find the cause call and leave a message.

BTW, your electric utility is understaffed. I remember a lineman speaking in front of City Council. He stated how difficult it was to hire in Palo Alto. Mostly due to the lower wages than bay area cities. That was before the heralded benefit cuts. As a PG&E lineman I would never consider taking the pay cut to work in Palo Alto.

Like this comment
Posted by Outside Observer
a resident of another community
on Oct 14, 2010 at 8:32 pm

PG&E Lineman,

So true. In Palo Alto they get what they pay for.

Recently, even the Utilities Director applied for a position at an outside agency, but didn't get the job. Guess that agency knows the PA reality too.

Like this comment
Posted by LAHscot
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Oct 14, 2010 at 8:49 pm

Portable phones don't work during power outages but POTS (Plain Ole Telephone Service) ones work just fine. If you don't have one, buy one for ~$10 at Fry's or Radio Shack and be ready. The POTS phones are 100% line-powered, meaning that they use the 48Vdc battery service provided by the telephones company's central office equipment, not an outlet from PG&E or CPA Utilities. Unless the telephone lines go down with a tree fall, you should be in as good shape as possible.

Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 14, 2010 at 11:25 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

1. On the City not wanting to send out a city-wide alert: One of the primary criteria for the alerting system selected (CANS, now AlertSCC) was that the notification area could be easily and quickly selected: You are presented with a map and use your mouse to lay out a polygon defining that area. The comments reported in this article indicate that critical City staff are unaware of one of the most fundamental features of this system.

2. On it being after-hours: Another of the critical features behind the selection of the alerting system was that it was accessible from the Internet. If the person responsible for issuing the alert was not in the office, they could have done so from their smart phone or their home computer or ... Again it appears that certain City officials haven't learned the basics of the system.

To the comment about what phones work during a power outage, AlertSCC (and CANS before it) allow you to register your cell phone for alerts. And the claim that POTS phones are 100% line-powered is false: There are some that are, but many that aren't. The relevant distinction is whether you have to plug your phone into an electrical outlet.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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