Topanga Unplugged—SCE’s Power Shutoff

SCE-Lineman.

What happens when the lights go out…and the phones…and the internet?

The first of the season’s Red Flag warnings due to high Santa Ana winds for portions of Los Angeles, Ventura, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Orange counties were anticipated to last from 10 p.m. on Sunday, October 14, through 8 p.m. on Tuesday, October 16, and possibly into Wednesday, October 17. As Monday passed with some strong wind gusts, SCE cancelled the Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) policy monitoring for the Santa Monica Mountains at midnight on October 16, according to an e-mail from the City of Malibu.

As of Sunday, October 14, SCE was notifying high-risk fire areas that it could implement its PSPS policy at any time.  

“We will only shut off the power as a last resort when weather conditions are so dangerous that flying branches, palm fronds, and other vegetation pose a threat to power lines and the safety of the community,” said SCE’s incident commander, Paul Grigaux.

This wind event comes on the heels of numerous public outreach meetings by SCE to explain the PSPS policy that officially went into effect on October 1.

The meetings were met by an outraged public in Malibu in September and again, at a meeting on October 9, at King Gillette Ranch in Calabasas.

Because a Halloween event, Nights of the Jack,” was being set up, there was some confusion at the main gate.

Eventually SCE stationed a traffic monitor to redirect people to an unmarked side entrance, where people parked in a field.

Topanga resident Lindy Hill observed “monitors telling people to go back to Lost Hills Road, which was not correct,” she said. “I watched as many people who followed her misdirection travel miles away and may have given up on finding the entrance. I got the impression they [SCE] were making it difficult.”

At the venue, in a move that many people thought was intended to avoid the angry outbursts from previous meetings, SCE first ushered them to a side room for coffee, cookies, and SCE-manned stations where people could ask questions and pick up literature about PSPS, before moving into the auditorium for the presentation.

When it came time for the Q&A following the presentation, people were invited to adjourn again to the side room, at which a chorus of objections rose among the audience who insisted on hearing all the questions.

It could have been a mutiny in the making, if Malibu City Council Mayor Pro Tem Jefferson Wagner hadn’t taken the stage and offered to facilitate a solution.

“Use your pens and pencils and put away the pitchforks,” he admonished, then selected about seven people from each location—Topanga, Malibu, 101 Corridor, and Ventura County—to ask a question or state their concerns.

The meeting ended with many residents disappointed that SCE was unable to answer key concerns, especially about lack of emergency communication via cell phones, internet, or land lines (while almost non-existent), that all depend on electric power.

 

WE’RE ON OUR OWN

The next day the Topanga Emergency Management (TEM) Task Force met at Topanga Library to coordinate strategies in the event of a power shutdown that could leave the community bereft of any communication.

The thrust of this meeting was to ask, what can we do if we have no communication—in case of, say, a house fire, a medical emergency, or evacuation notification—when there is time for advance warning. If a catastrophic fire were bearing down on us, that would be another story.

The critical question became: What did we do before there was the internet and cell phones?

Division 7 Assistant Fire Chief Anthony Williams remembered the good old, bad old days when “we used rudimentary bullhorns and PA systems to alert people. There are ways.”

“We worked this before there were cell phones,” L.A. Sheriff’s Department Deputy Mark Winn reminded everyone. “We’ll have to go back to the old school of boots on the ground, communicating with each other, and work it like we did before. We haven’t lost old-school methods.”

“We’ve done a lot of work getting communications as good as they can be,” said Ryan Ulyate of North Topanga Canyon Fire Safe Council. “People knowing about a potential fire well in advance can keep a lot of people from dying. What we need now is an Unplugged strategy.”

Michele Johnson, founder of Topanga Sages, was concerned about seniors and the disabled. “They are the most likely to be left behind because they don’t have the ability or means to evacuate on their own.”

Chief Williams suggested that a 72-hour notification of a power shutdown is the first warning for people to heighten their situational awareness and proactively put their evacuation plan into play. “For seniors and disabled, if fire conditions are there, their plan should be to acknowledge that the first notification is their cue to evacuate,” he said.

“There was a lot of fear in the audience last night and SCE did not address communications,” said Timothy Lippman, representing Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s office.

Noting that the county’s own emergency responders and critical service providers have expressed serious safety concerns related to the PSPS program, Lippman informed the task force that the Board of Supervisors passed a motion….”to make sure a power shutoff does not lead to worse unintended circumstances…and leave people at greater risk.”

“I’d like to bring specifics [to the supervisor], a list of what needs to be done [and what part each agency plays in such a situation],” Lippman said.

The motion requested that affected county departments review SCE’s PSPS program and report back to the Board with identification of unincorporated areas most likely affected by the program; potential risks and impacts to critical infrastructure and emergency responders; lessons learned from other districts where power shutoffs have been in use for years; analysis of what impacts and risks can be mitigated; inventory and status of backup systems; and backup system types and replacement/update needs at critical facilities such as hospitals, dams, yards, and other county-operated facilities.

“SCE doesn’t have a complete mitigation plan. We can help tell them where the gaps in their plan are,” said Ashu Palta, Sr. Emergency Program Manager, OEM.

The reports should be coming into the county soon and the Messenger Mountain News will keep readers informed about this, as well as their responsibility in the process.

Chief Williams observed, “You don’t need a 72-hour mandate to evacuate; You have your own mandate to leave. Once you have notification, it’s your choice.”

 

ABOUT TEM

The mission of the Topanga Emergency Management Task Force, a partnership of designated public agencies, non-governmental organizations, and community organizations is to ensure the sustainability emergency management efforts and strategies for the Los Angeles County unincorporated area of Topanga. The Task Force oversees the coordination and communication among governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the community to improve preparedness, prevention, response, and recovery. It will develop, review, and monitor community-based emergency plans, facilitate emergency planning exercises, ensure community involvement and educational outreach, and evaluate and update emergency plans after a disaster.

TEM is an example of how our county agencies and local emergency preparedness teams are working together to get ahead of a situation that, in this case, was implemented before it was thought through.

Participating in the October 10 task force meeting were: co-chairs Jeanne O’Donnell, L.A. County Office of Emergency Management (OEM), and TCEP’s James Grasso; Ashu Palta, Sr. Emergency Program Manager, OEM; L.A. County Fire Department Battalion 5 Chief  Drew Smith, Division 7; L.A. County Fire Department Assistant Chief Anthony Williams, Division 7; L.A. County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Mark Winn; Michael Edwards, American Red Cross; Scott Ferguson of TCEP; Beth Burnam and Ryan Ulyate of the North Topanga Canyon Fire Safe Council; Stacy Sledge, president of Topanga Town Council; Susan Nissman, resident; and Arthur Nissman, Arson Watch and CERT. 

 

Flavia Potenza
Flavia Potenza

Flavia Potenza is executive editor of the Messenger Mountain News. She is also a founding member of the 40-year old Topanga Messenger that closed its doors in 2016. She can be reached at editor@messengermountainnews.com

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