Southern California Edison (SCE) was given permission by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) last year to shut off power to certain high-risk wildfire areas in the event of high winds; Malibu is in one of those high fire risk areas. SCE’s plan, called the Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) program, means parts of the city could potentially be without electrical power for days at a time in an effort to reduce the risk of wildfires from downed power lines.
The CPUC voted to expand SCE’s responsibility for communications and notifications to local officials both before and after power shutoffs, at its last meeting on May 30. Power companies were also required to evaluate the need for backup generators during power shutoffs, and to establish points of contact with “public safety partners.”
In response to the PSPS program, Malibu’s Public Safety Manager Susan Dueñas gave a presentation at last week’s monthly public safety commission meeting on how the city plans to handle power shutoffs.
She explained the PSPS program is “a tool for Edison to prevent fire.”
“We were told it would be a measure of last resort,” she continued. “But it could mean a couple of days without power, waiting for conditions to improve before they turn the power back on again. And even once they make the decision to resume power, they need time to go check the lines and make sure that none are down before turning it back on.”
During a power shutoff, Dueñas feels the No. 1 public safety concern for Malibu is the loss of communication by cell phone or internet. To counteract that, she wants to set up 10 information stations around Malibu with the help of CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams).
In addition, she said the city now has the equipment and money to send people out around town in their vehicles with bullhorns to announce what’s going on.
“If we get a heads-up from Edison that PSPS is a possibility, we’ll also send it out on our phone and email alert system and list where the information stations will be,” Duenas said. “In addition, we’re working closely with Hans [Laetz, general manager of radio station KBUU], which is invaluable.”
The city also hopes to strengthen the use of hand-held radios to relay information back and forth to city employees or CERT volunteers.
SCE representative Rudy Gonzales said of the PSPS, “We realize it’s a critical decision impacting the community, and we don’t take it lightly. We’ve hired meteorologists to monitor weather conditions, and will try to notify communities from 24 to 48 hours in advance.” He also said it was possible that a PSPS could be cancelled at the last minute if conditions change.
He advised members of the public to go online to the SCE website (sce.com/mysce/login) and update their phone number and other contact information in order to receive advance notice of power shutoffs directly from SCE.
“We hope we don’t have to implement this, and we want to make sure communities are prepared,” Gonzales said. He also noted that last year, in the general Malibu area, only one power shutoff was enacted, which affected 158 customers in Moorpark.
“A red flag warning alone is not enough to shut off power,” he continued. “We’re installing 850 weather stations on top of our Edison equipment and 160 high-definition cameras in high fire risk areas, plus we’ll be working with local public safety agencies. Our role is to make the best decision possible even though conditions change. “
If there’s a particular formula or criteria that SCE plans to use in deciding when to implement a PSPS, Gonzales wasn’t talking about it. He said it’s going to be a “judgment call.”
“Malibu is one of our focus areas for covered conductor installs,” Gonzales added. “Covered conductors” are electrical wires covered in three layers, which makes them capable of withstanding much more wear and tear, including contact with trees, balloons and wildlife, wind vibration, abrasion and UV rays.
If SCE decides to shut off the power to an area, they do it at the substation level. Malibu has several substations, and power can be shut off just to certain sections of the city.
Several residents expressed concern over not being able to call 9-1-1 if phones weren’t working during power outages.
Dueñas responded, “Part of the public education will be for the public to decide what their plan is going to be. You may decide you want to evacuate during a power shutoff.”
SCE responded that they are working with cell phone companies on possible solutions.