Author: Denise Fairchild and Kim Evon  Published: 10/17/19       The Energy Collective Group

California’s fire season is back. Yet if this past week is any indication, our emergency response remains woefully inadequate.  When disaster strikes we are far from being energy resilient, ensuring reliable access to electricity for our most vulnerable communities.

Climate fires are California’s new normal.  Dangerous combinations of high (20-60 mph) sustained winds and tinderbox drought conditions wreaked havoc throughout the state last week.  Massive evacuations from the Saddleridge fire in northwest Los Angeles and the Reche Fire in Moreno Valley spared life, if not property, from thousands of acres of burning land.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) took pre-emptive measures.  They shut off power in over 30 counties in northern California.  In this way, they avoided a repeat of the 2018 fire season, the state’s deadliest, in which electrical equipment was blamed for conflagrations that killed 85 people and destroyed 19,000 homes.

But the shutoffs were a disaster of another kind.  They left close to a million people and more than half the counties in the state without power, or recourse, for nearly a week.

The PG&E power shutoffs were a colossal failure, according to utility and elected officials, local agencies, and residents.   The disruption was widespread:  accidents caused by failed street lights, schools closed, businesses idled, food supplies and basic services – public transit and water – compromised.   And as premeditated as this emergency response was, residents were left the dark; not just from the power outage, but from the lack of information.  No one could get information about what to expect or what to do in a power emergency.   PG&E’s communication and computer systems crashed, their website went down, their community resource centers were underprepared and useless.  The shutoff prevented fires, but not the burn; everyone fumed.

There must be a better plan for power outages, and emergency response in general, to prepare for recurring natural and manmade disasters.  This is especially important for vulnerable communities.  Life and death hangs in the balance. Financially strong families and businesses were inconvenienced, but managed. Early reports indicate that hospitals and nursing homes were protected by backup generators.  Isolated and helpless, however, were the countless families and their caregivers who rely on ventilators, respirators and refrigeration for medical reasons. SEIU2015, the California Long Term Care Workers’ Union that represents over 400,000 caregivers across the state most of whom provide in-home care to seniors, children and adults with disabilities say most of these caregivers and their patients are stranded whenever there is a blackout.

The utility sector needs to proactively engage and support the home health sector in its energy and emergency management strategies.  A recent focus group study of home health care and nursing home workers by Emerald Cities Collaborative and SEUI2015 found the lack of communication a common theme.

Most facilities have a communications plan.  They are required to call families informing them that they can take their family resident home.  But often families can’t, especially if they require life support equipment… feeding tubes, breathing tube, etc.

Moreover, it was a rare exception in which evacuations were well-executed

I live in Santa Paula with the Thomas fire.  They shut off our electricity.   My son is on a feeding tube/respirator.   I was holding his head to make sure he didn’t stop breathing.   Trying to move his head to help with breathing.  I have no back-up generators. I talked to FEMA, but no one could help me.  He is 190 lbs.   There was no evacuation plan or help.  I can take care of his medicines and other things, but I can’t move him.    I had no info on where to take him.

In addition to better communication and emergency planning, the greater need is for energy resilience.  It’s time to put battery storage technologies into the homes and facilities of vulnerable communities. The Clean Energy Group thinks there is a pathway: Its recent report Home Health Care in the Dark  offers suggestions for restructuring California’s experimental and underfunded Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP) to provide backup power for nursing facilities and home health care.  SGIP’s focus on accelerating the use of battery storage technologies with renewable (and nonrenewable) energy generation could help medically dependent families during power outages.

The Clean Energy Group’s study also suggests changing the focus from carbon reduction to energy resilience, increasing access for non-homeowners and low-income populations, considering portable technologies, and mostly communicating with the home health care sector to access and refine the program.

The new normal requires new strategies, new technologies and new partnerships with America’s caregivers to ensure the sick, the elderly and the most vulnerable are climate and energy resilient. Let’s be clear: power shutoffs without energy resilience strategies is still playing with fire.

Denise Fairchild is president and CEO of Emerald Cities Collaborative, a national nonprofit organization of business, labor and community groups dedicated to climate-resilience strategies that produce environmental, economic and equity outcomes.

Kim Evon proudly serves as an Executive Vice President of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2015 – California’s long term care local representing 400,000 home care and nursing home workers throughout California.

This op-ed was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation.