During an unprecedented meeting on Thursday evening, state legislators serving the Coastside attempted to hold accountable law enforcement officials and utility service providers after power outages and communications difficulties that have periodically crippled the coast.
State Sen. Jerry Hill and Assemblymen Marc Berman and Kevin Mullin politely demanded solutions at a forum at Half Moon Bay High School. About 100 people came to hear from them as well as from representatives from PG&E, Comcast, California Highway Patrol, Caltrans, San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office and Cal Fire. Also in attendance were Half Moon Bay City Council members Harvey Rarback, Deborah Ruddock and Robert Brownstone, City Manager Bob Nisbet and San Mateo County Commissioner Don Horsley.
The meeting came after three high-profile outages over the winter that left the Coastside either gridlocked or without power, cable or other vital services. While nothing specific was resolved, there were promises of better communication and the hope of redundant lines that would greatly reduce the likelihood of such outages.
“Take each one of these incidents in isolation, they may be looked as a one-off situation, but this foreshadows what may happen in an emergency on the coast,” Mullin said. “To me this is a public safety issue.”
Jim Peelman, vice president of field operations for Comcast, spoke about what Comcast has done as a result of the incidents this year.
“We are looking at both the issue of power and diverse routes,” Peelman said. “We took a look at … how do we best support power in an autonomous state for our services?”
Peelman said Comcast is extending its backup battery service from eight to 12 hours by June and, to make sure power is running throughout any PG&E outage, a standalone generator will be positioned at the company’s local hub, known as an optic transit node.
“We are also in initial conversations with Caltrans to allow for a partnership to utilize the Devil’s Slide area to bring in an additional fiber optic line to connect Half Moon Bay in a twin redundant path,” Peelman said.
Beyond outages disrupting day-to-day life, many Coastsiders have not forgotten the frustrations that came as a result of the March 12 Devil’s Slide tunnels closure, which was due to a power outage on the Pacifica side of the tunnels. The event raised critical questions about why Caltrans had no back up energy source as part of the tunnels’ design plan.
“We are already starting to look for solutions in redundancy,” said Caltrans Maintenance Manager Earl Sherman III. “It looks like a line from the south is not feasible. Adding a generator may be a feasible solution, but there are permitting issues. My understanding is the generator would be the size of a 40-foot semi-truck. So that will be a challenge.”
Sherman said power is needed in the tunnels to operate large fans in case of a fire or excess carbon dioxide. Hill inquired about other kinds of power sources, such as battery power.
“We have engineers looking into it, we are aware of how environmentally minded the Coastside is,” Sherman said.
“If the power is going to go out and that causes the tunnels to close, to me that is poor planning,” Hill said.
While acknowledging there is no timetable for a fix, one PG&E representative indicated help may be on the way.
“We have opportunities in front of us to give and contribute better,” said PG&E Electric Operations Director Jason Regan. “We have two sources of power that are on the same transformer bank. I will hope to work with our partners and see what options we have and we will explore it.”
Berman asked officials how communication and coordination among agencies would improve going forward. Sherman said prior to the March 12 incident he was not aware of the SMC Alert system that allows county residents to provide a phone number by which to receive emergency texts.
“We have been talking about training for our dispatchers. We have been meeting with locals and developing individual communication plans.”
Caltrans spokesman Jeff Weiss acknowledged that the four SigAlerts sent on March 12 did not reach local media and that many did not hear of the congestion until it was too late.
PG&E has its own alert system to notify customers of outages, according to Electric Operations Director Mike Swanson. He said the company is working toward better communication but said that can be complicated by the need to verify information through official channels. During the evening of March 12, a PG&E contractor caused significant delays for drivers with a tree project on Highway 92. In the weeks before the outage, the company did tell the community the tree work was coming but there was no effort to stop that work in an emergency.
“We want to slow down, verify the information and be sure everybody is on the same page,” Swanson said.
San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos pledged to work “proactively” to communicate more with the public. He acknowledged that SMC Alerts are not in Spanish and that in the past the alerts haven’t always provided updated information as conditioned warranted.
The forum lasted just over an hour. It seemed all involved thought the discussion just a starting point. Some in the audience remained skeptical that things would change in the next Coastside emergency.
“While it all sounded good, I am not sure what to take away from it,” said Half Moon Bay resident Chris Johnson. “What kind of follow through will there be? There is a level of duplicity.”
Hill said he envisioned further meetings at his peninsula office in hopes of holding service providers to their word.
“We want to keep the Coastside communities connected,” Hill said. “We are looking to open pathways to solutions.”