The majority of communications systems we all rely on (Internet, TV, digital and cell phone) require electricity. When the power goes out, many of Topanga’s connections to the world go out as well. This includes telecom providers, Frontier and Spectrum, plus DirecTV and all cell phone carriers. Old-style copper telephone lines receive power from the service provider. They should continue to operate during a power outage, providing the phone lines are still up. They still exist here and there, but are the exception as service providers have been phasing them out.
We all experienced the frustration of being “unplugged” in the early hours of the Woolsey Fire on November 9, 2018, when all of Topanga lost power. Most residents were immediately shut off from emergency notifications and fire updates, including the order to evacuate the canyon. The deadly 2017 and 2018 fires in Northern California showed, with tragic results, what can happen when residents fail to get timely notifications of a fast moving wildfire.
It’s strongly suggested that individuals include, in their emergency planning, multiple ways to get emergency information during a power outage. TCEP’s Disaster Radio Team volunteers have come up with some suggestions. As you do your own research to find the solutions that work best for you, please keep these points in mind:
This is not an exhaustive list of possible solutions. There are no guarantees any of these solutions will work for your specific installation or in any specific disaster scenario. Telecom equipment comes in many different configurations—even from the same provider—so solutions may have to be adapted for your particular setup. Cost ranges are rough estimates only. Your mileage may vary. TCEP does not recommend or endorse any specific products or brands. TCEP does not endorse or vouch for the website(s) linked below.
Emergency Notification Options AM/FM Battery-Powered Radio: “Free” – $80+ Use: Listen to city-wide local news. Many Topanga residents heard about the Woolsey evacuation orders from a portable AM radio tuned to KNX 1070. Do a web search for “Emergency radios” to find brands with multiple power sources, including hand-crank charging systems. Your car likely has a radio (that’s the “free” one). Preset these AM news stations: KNX 1070; KFI 640; KABC 790; KRLA 870.
FRS Radios: $20 – $50 Use: Listen to TCEP Top-Of-The-Hour (TOTH) reports during emergencies; communicate with neighbors. FRS stands for Family Radio Service. These are basic, battery-powered, “walkie-talkie” radios that can purchased and used without a license.
During large-scale emergencies, like the Woolsey Fire, TCEP’s Disaster Radio Team transmits a five minute Emergency Status Announcement at the TOTH. This announcement may include evacuation alerts, road closures, school notices, small and large animal evacuation information, and Red Cross shelter locations. The TOTH report is now available on FRS Channel 15. See page 25 of the Topanga Disaster Survival Guide (www.topangasurvival.org) for more on FRS radios and TOTH reports. Also, see TCEP’s FRS Handout at t-cep.org/FRS.htm
Backup Battery Options for Charging Cell Phones, Tablets, Laptops, and Radios
- Get charging cables for your car and a charging adapter if necessary.
- Have several USB charging sticks in your emergency kit, along with proper cables and connectors for all of your devices. Keep your sticks fully charged.
- Consider larger capacity battery packs with USB ports designed for phone charging that provide more power for more devices.
- Practice good phone usage during emergencies to conserve battery life.
The following solutions can provide back-up power to your telecom equipment to keep your digital phone, internet, Wi-Fi, and cell phone working. These options assume your telecom provider continues to supply service to your home. If your telecom provider experiences a communications network outage, then no amount of home back-up power will provide you with internet or phone service.
Topanga cell service is spotty, at best, and does not have any built-in back-up power, but a built-in back-up battery for Frontier/Spectrum phone service costs $25 – $60 and can help power a digital telephone landline’s voice service for up to 8 hours. It does NOT power Internet or TV.
These batteries are installed either in the Frontier Optical Network Terminal (ONT) power supply or the Spectrum Multimedia Terminal Adapter (MTA) phone modem. Customers must purchase these batteries either from their telecom provider or a third party compatible brand.
The batteries automatically keep only the phone service working in an outage. This assumes the telecom provider continues to deliver service to your home. You will need to use a non-powered, (old-fasioned) corded telephone to make and receive calls. These phones are readily available and should be part of your emergency kit.
Batteries degrade with age. Some systems have a status light that indicates battery conditions and/or an audible alarm (intermittent beeping) indicating your battery needs replacing. Consider replacing Frontier batteries every 3-5 years. Spectrum claims their batteries last 5-10 years.
You could buy a second battery and use a trickle charger to keep it charged, giving you the ability to swap out a spent battery for additional run time. An Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) costs $120 – $300 and could be used to keep Frontier, Spectrum, and DirecTV services (phone/internet/Wi-Fi) powered for up to 6 hours. This type of battery has AC outlets that automatically supply back-up power to any device that is plugged into it when the electricity grid goes down. Generally, a UPS is not meant to power devices for long time periods. Its main purpose is to keep sensitive electrical equipment, such as computers, running long enough after a power loss for you to save and shut down without damaging the equipment or losing data. However, it should be possible to keep your Frontier ONT or Spectrum MTA and Wi-Fi router plugged into a UPS 24/7. During an outage, the whole system can continue to operate off the UPS for a limited time.
The length of time the UPS will power the ONT / MTA and Wi-Fi router depends on the capacity of the UPS and the power requirements of whatever you’ve got plugged in. Frontier ONT / Spectrum MTA and Wi-Fi routers do not require a lot of power. A 1,000VA-1,500VA UPS may give you 3-6 hours of run time for this equipment.
Consider getting the most powerful UPS you can afford to give yourself the longest potential run time. The batteries in some UPS can be “hot swapped” allowing you to change depleted batteries with fresh charged batteries.
Generators Generators $500 – $1,000+ Use: Keep digital phone and internet/Wi-Fi system plus other devices powered for up to 7+ days. Generators give you the most power per dollar. They have AC outlets making it easy to directly plug in and run electrical equipment.
You must store fuel for your generator. The amount of fuel you have will determine how long you can power your equipment. Generators are noisy and emit fumes so they must be run outdoors. Propane-and gasoline-powered generators each have pros and cons. See this web page for an overview: https://www.americasgenerators.com/blog/post/2018/07/03/backup-fuel-propane-vs-gas- generators.aspx
Editor’s note: For our readers who have solar power, Topanga resident Jane Terjung has put together a website with information on solar batteries as an alternative to a gas or propane-powered generator: http://www.janeterjung.com/StayConnected.html
For many in the Woolsey Fire burn zone, backup cell phone batteries and a basic AM radio ended up being the most essential communication items not just during the fire, but during the ongoing power outage after the fire was out. Cell reception was reestablished long before landlines, internet, or even power was restored. For the residents who opted to stay behind during the evacuation, generators—and the knowledge of how to use them—also proved essential.
By Scott Ferguson