SDG&E Communications Concern in Blackout

By Published On: November 4, 2011

San Diego Gas & Electric said non-traditional communications were key as utility officials shared lessons at a legislative hearing on what utilities have to cope with during a widespread blackout. SDG&E chief executive officer Michael Niggli laid out what his utility did to handle the crisis at a joint hearing on the massive blackout in September by the Assembly Utilities & Commerce Committee and Joint Assembly-Senate Legislative Committee on Emergency Management Oct. 26. SDG&E, he told lawmakers, found that one of its chief challenges was to employ new ways of communicating, both with its staff as they worked to restore power and with its customers and the general public. “This turned into the largest Twitter event in our company’s history,” Niggli explained. The utility turned to social media to reach both its own employees and its customers in the face of a cell phone system on which voice lines were jammed. It reached customers with corded land lines--which still worked during the blackout because they get their power from the telephone system instead of the grid. Yet the effectiveness of this approach was limited because the number of people who have landlines is in sharp decline. Internally, the company used satellite phones to communicate crucial information to field crews working to restore power, Niggli said, as well as Twitter and text messages--which still got through on the county’s hobbled cell phone system. SDG&E controlled its restoration and customer service work through its emergency operations center where 55 staff members worked through the night on Sept. 8 to coordinate utility operations. The company communicated with its customers in a multitude of ways, including frequent briefings over the county’s designated emergency management radio station, e-mails, Twitter, cell phone calls, and land-line calls. It also put information on its website, which got 258,000 hits during the outage that took 12 hours to fully restore, according to the chief executive. Cell phone operators scrambled to move emergency generators into place to power crucial cell towers that lacked backup generators or batteries. Then they moved them after SDG&E restored power to those stations to towers where backup batteries were worn down, AT&T and Verizon managers told lawmakers. Of paramount concern, the utility noted, was checking up on 21,000 customers who have electronic life support equipment in their homes to cope with health problems. Niggli said the company was able to reach most of them on the phone, but had to deploy 180 of its workers to go door-to-door to check up on 2,000 customers with medical needs. Another key task, Niggli said, was to ask customers to turn off all the equipment that was running when the blackout occurred so it did not create a power surge and damage grid components when the utility restored service. In addition, SDG&E was called on to provide some backup generators, others involved in the emergency management action told lawmakers. Power outages occurred at water treatment plants and at sewage pumping stations, which lacked adequate backup generators. Wastewater pump stations without backup generators were responsible for two large sewage spills, according to David Gibson, San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board executive officer. Typically, pumping stations are either hooked to a backup generator or to two separate utility substations on the theory that power is unlikely to go out at the same time at both, explained Roger Bailey, San Diego Public Utilities Department director. Even though the pumps were connected to two SDG&E substations, they both failed.

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