Supes express frustration in wake of power outage

San Francisco supervisors were frustrated how little information they received about a citywide power outage on April 21 that affected 88,000 customers throughout The City.

On Wednesday, a hearing was held at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Government and Audit Committee on the power outage, where supervisors said they received little information about the power outage to share with concerned constituents who called into their offices.

The power outage began sometime after 9 a.m. and lasted until around 5 p.m. A circuit breaker that blew and set fire to insulation at a PG&E power substation in the Tenderloin resulted in the eight hour power outage.

President of the Board of Supervisors London Breed said residents and city officials were left with limited information about what was going during the power outage:

“During those eight hours, many city officials and citizens were left without accurate information about what had happened and how the problem was being addressed.”

Breed added:

“Many residents and city officials were left way too long without essential information that could have calmed fears and helped people navigate The City.”

Supervisor Aaron Peskin said it was important for city officials to get information in real time so officials can pass along the information to their constituents:

“I’m highly annoyed by the fact that we were not getting real-time communications either from PG&E or from our Department of Emergency Management.”

Supervisor Jane Kim said she received her first correspondence about the power outage after 1 p.m. A 10:30 email from DEM was sent to Breed, Peskin and Kim, but all three said they did not receive the email.

Another issue during the first hour of the power outage, was an influx in 911 calls.

During the first of hour of the power outage, Executive Director of DEM Anne Kroenberg, said the 911 call center received 405 calls between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. Call-takers were able to bring down the call volume by 10 a.m., including calling those who had hung up. In comparison, the call center received only 70 emergency calls a week before the power outage.

During the morning of outage, there were 12 call-takers on duty, but a “surge protocol” was activated, in which DEM had called in an additional six call-takers, said Kroenberg.

The call center would have needed 60 call-takers during first hour of the power outage in order meet a national standard of answering phone calls within 10 seconds, 90 percent of the time.

Kroenberg said there was no call center in the U.S. or around the world has this type of staffing level because it’s not sustainable.

On a regular day, Kroenberg said the department would need 14 call-takers to meet the national standard. The department is targeting 2018 to meet that the national standard as it is in the process of hiring more call-takers in the understaffed call center.

As far as improving communications, Kroenberg said the department was looking into why some supervisors did not receive the initial email from DEM.

Kroenberg added that DEM had recently added all of the supervisors onto The City’s alert system, where each supervisor would start receiving text messages in regards to emergencies as a way to better communicate with city officials.

Other city agencies such as the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, Fire Department and Police Department, were also asked to explain how they handled the power outage.

Muni officials said they did stop some electric trolley bus service because of the transit agency’s own power substations were without power in the Fillmore and Marina.

Hundreds of traffic lights were not working throughout The City as transit officials deployed traffic control officers to mitigate traffic and pedestrian safety at high-volume corridors. Cable cars were not running for most of the day, and Montgomery Station was closed until around 11:30 a.m.

Fire Department Chief Joanna Hayes-White told supervisors that firefighters used a dry chemical agent to put on the fire, but because the PG&E equipment was still hot, firefighters also used carbon dioxide.

Hayes-White said the Fire Department responded to 41 calls of people stuck in elevators during the power outage.

The Police Department had concerns that there may have been something more complex occurring as other metropolitan cities also experienced power outages including in New York, said Deputy Chief Mikail Ali.

Ali said SFPD was working with state and federal partners, deciding that the power outage was not a threat at 11:30 a.m.

PG&E representatives were at the hearing, and apologized to supervisors and to the public for the power outage.

Barry Anderson, vice president of electrical output for PG&E, said the company is working on a $100 million project to upgrade the Larkin Street power substation, and expects to complete the project in 2019.

PG&E also had begun the process of accepting claims from businesses who lost revenue during the power outage, said Papia Gambelin, director of public affairs for PG&E.

Anderson said PG&E has hired a third-party engineering firm to find the root cause of the circuit breaker failure, which may take six to eight weeks to figure out.