On the morning of April 21, 2017, a fire in one electric company substation left almost 90,000 people – 10 percent of San Francisco – in the dark. Schools and businesses closed. Rush-hour traffic was thrown into chaos as traffic lights went dark, cable cars stopped and a downtown subway station closed. Surgeons paused mid-operation waiting for generators to kick in, and hospitals canceled procedures and sent emergency patients to other hospitals. Emergency workers had to struggle through snarled traffic to rescue people trapped in places like elevators.
Fortunately, no one died or sustained serious injury, and no traffic accidents were reported. Even so, the power company didn’t completely restore service until that evening.
Even a small power outage can knock out electricity for a long time – long enough for food in the refrigerator to spoil and those who rely on powered medical devices to be in trouble. Longer outages of several days could cause widespread government, financial and infrastructure destruction, according to a National Research Council workshop. A 2003 blackout that left 50 million people in the eastern United States and Canada without power caused between $4 and $6 billion damage and contributed to at least 11 deaths.
Both utilities and government have taken many steps to improve the way they handle potential failures, including establishing communication plans and practicing emergencies.
Their preparations are instructive for everyone.
The first thing cities do when the power goes out is make sure everyone is safe, according to this story in Wired. During a power outage, emergency personnel from many agencies must coordinate. People are stuck in elevators and subways. Hospitals must arrange ambulances to transport patients to other hospitals whose lights are on. With traffic signals shut down, roads quickly become congested. All these issues require communication with multiple agencies and with members of the public, at a time when cellular service quickly gets overwhelmed.
Cities respond to communication difficulties with dedicated liaisons between agencies and the public. Sometimes, they even have a control center, according to the Wired story. There they can coordinate to get services to those who need them.
You can keep communication lines open with a communication plan.
Keep mobile devices like cell phones, tablets, and laptops charged and have a backup power source for them. During a power outage, dim your phone or tablet’s screen, turn off Wi-Fi and close unnecessary apps to save battery power, suggests this story from USA Today.
“These devices will help you communicate with your power company, and they’ll help you stay up to date on restoration efforts, weather forecasts, and other important information,” says the U.S. Department of Energy.
Make sure all family members know how to reach an emergency contact, preferably one out of the area.
Learn about your area’s emergency plans so you know where to go to keep warm or cool if the weather’s bad. Municipalities often designate places like libraries as warming or cooling stations and provide backup power there.
If you rely on a power-dependent medical device, communicate with utilities and emergency services before a power outage, so they can prioritize your location to restore power more quickly.
Next, be flexible. According to the Wired story, during the power outage, San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency sent all its available parking officers to direct traffic. Some cities provide bus service to bypass dark subway stations. The story also described how after the 2003 blackout, cities learned they need backups for electronic doors, phones, air conditioning and communication.
Keep your car’s fuel tank at least half full in case you need it to keep warm or cool, or to charge electronic device, or to travel through congestion. Find the manual release for an electric garage door opener. Never run a car in a garage or other partially enclosed space, to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
Redo your dinner plans to keep the refrigerator and freezer closed. Food keeps cold in an unpowered fridge for about four hours if you keep the door closed, and a powerless freezer for about 48 hours. Use your fridge foods first and pantry foods last.
Have water on hand. Water pumping stations that lose electricity can’t keep water flowing to your home.
After the power outage, cities review how well their plans worked. Do the same thing. Did you keep comfortable? Were you able to communicate with family members and friends? Were your health care needs met?