The Santa Barbara County Grand Jury has released a report on the methods and effectiveness of the Public Safety Power Shutoff alert system, finding that some residents are at risk of not being notified or obtaining needed information.
The report, published Wednesday, found that some groups may not get the alerts they need, including those whose electricity accounts are held by landlords or property managers, as well as those who don’t understand English or Spanish. In addition, those who depend on electricity for survival to run equipment, refrigerate medications or run appliances may not be given the extra information they need, or carry out the actions advised. Those who cannot find shelter with family or friends could be especially at risk, the report states.
Also, people seeking information to prepare for PSPS or emergencies may not be able to find the information on the county’s website, which is “scattered, hard to navigate, incomplete and poorly coordinated,” the report states.
As part of the report, the Grand Jury found that a PSPS event is scheduled and predictable, though it is difficult to ensure that everyone is contacted because a small staff is used to cover a large area and population. Emergency situations often involve a larger staff and a smaller affected population, but they are rarely predictable and need rapid decisions and communications.
The group found that staff in the county’s Office of Emergency Management, Sheriff’s Office and the county Public Health and Fire departments have identified and made plans for both existing and potential communication issues.
Local power companies Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric began using PSPS in December 2017 and early 2018, respectively. The power companies, which are overseen by the California Public Utilities Commission and the State Legislature, are the sole decision makers on instituting a shutdown.
While in some cases a PSPS or emergency situation are drastically different, the report noted that during both instances public communications provide action advice and information.
“For these communications four problems must be solved: whom to tell, how to tell, when to tell and what to tell,” the report states. “The answers to all four are constrained both by resource limitations and the need to avoid confusion and warning fatigue due to frequent false alarms.”
A PSPS event typically follows a standard timeline, which allows for decision making and notification processes to be set up with little need for last-minute changes. In contrast, the predictability and timeline of an emergency depend on the type of event and no detailed standard protocol is possible, officials said.
Secondly, the area affected by a PSPS event is usually too large for door-to-door notification, with most people needing to be notified by electronic means. Only those who are registered or able receive messages on mass or social media are notified. During emergency situations, relatively small neighborhoods are impacted, therefore door-to-door notification or alerts may reach almost all who need them, the report found.
“During this investigation, it became clear to the 2019-20 Santa Barbara County Grand Jury that planning and carrying out County responses to PSPS and emergencies are complex, difficult tasks,” the report states. “Even for PSPS, the Jury found it necessary to limit its inquiry to communications with the public. The limitations were much more drastic for dealing with emergencies. The details in this Report and the far greater details in the County and City Plans show conscientious work by local government staff.”
The Jury issued findings and recommendations to the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors and is requesting a response in 90 days.
The findings include: residents who don’t comprehend English and Spanish are at risk of not understanding PSPS warnings; those who have accounts held by landlords or property managers are at risk of not receiving warnings issued by their power company; those who depend on electricity for vital medical devices or to keep medications refrigerated may not receive notifications intended for them; the county’s emergency information and advice for the public is scattered over several websites, which are not coordinated or updated regularly; and decisions for a PSPS even are made by the power companies without input from elected officials until after the shutdown ends.
The Grand Jury made the following recommendations to the Board of Supervisors: Direct and fund the Office of Emergency Management to update and improve its contact lists and communication methods to maximize the likelihood that all residents will receive the PSPS warnings or advice they need; direct and fund the OEM and the Department of Public Health to identify individuals dependent on electricity for essential medical needs; direct and fund the OEM and Department of Public Health to ensure the access of individuals dependent on electricity for survival to the supplies and locations recommended for them on county websites; fund the OEM to ensure all county website that provide emergency information are coordinated, easy to understand and navigate, regularly updated and use clear links to make information readily accessible; and urge the State Legislature to require local governments input into PSPS decisions before they are announced and carried out.