“This presentation is such a downer, I’ll never be welcomed back,” he joked.
The workshop, organized by the Mill Valley Fire Department and the Mill Valley Chamber, focused on PG&E’s plan to dramatically increase the use of one of its major wildfire prevention plans during the upcoming fire season: so-called Public Safety Power Shutoffs, when the utility giant will turn off power lines during weather deemed dangerously dry and windy in order to reduce the risk of wildfire, specifically in neighborhoods identified as at risk.
"(PG&E's) goal is to not be blamed for another fire," Jeffries said. "They do not want to take the blame for another fire."
PG&E's strategy will require significant planning by Mill Valley’s business owners, Jeffries and MVFD Chief Tom Welch told those in attendance. A subsequent workshop is set for June 24 at Del Mar School in Tiburon at 10am.
“We’re all used to these short one-, two- or three-hour power shutoffs, but this is a different thing that we’re going to be dealing with,” Jeffries said, noting that while he consults with public safety agencies, he does not work for or have any professional relationship with PG&E.
“The idea is that, based on certain conditions, they’re going to proactively de-energize their system – turn off the power. You’ll be without electricity, but those lines won’t be starting fires. If we shut down power, we can minimize the number of fires and save lives. But there are clearly complications in this for all of us.”
Factors Dictating Power Shutoffs
Jeffries said no single factor will dictate those decisions. National Weather Service alerts on red flag warnings, low humidity levels, sustained winds and gusts, the moisture content of the vegetation nearby and “real-time observations by PG&E’s wildfire operations center and field observations of PG&E crews” will all come into play in deciding to shut down power.
Those decisions will be made specific to different tiers of fire danger based on location. As you can see on the map above (click here or on the map itself for an interactive version of it), most of Mill Valley’s commercial districts, particularly Miller and East Blithedale avenues, as well as Tam Junction and Strawberry, are not within Tier 2 or Tier 3, which are designated as elevated and extreme, respectively.
“We’re hoping they’re small areas,” Jeffries said. “But there is potential that some very large areas maybe entire counties will be de-energized.”
PG&E has committed to issuing alerts at least 48 hours prior to a power shutoff, with subsequent alerts following 24 hours out, just prior to shutoff, during the outage and upon restoration of power. Those alerts will go to all customers within the affected areas via phone, text and email and via partners like City of Mill Valley and the Mill Valley Chamber via social media, website and emails. There are also a number of free emergency notification systems like Alert Marin and Nixle that anyone can sign up for to be updated about shutoffs and related emergency conditions.
Jeffries made a major point toward the end of the workshop: that before PG&E restores power to an affected area, PG&E crews will need to visually inspect all affected infrastructure within that affected area.
“A lot of us could handle 12-24 hours but none of us have probably planned for four, five or six days without power," he said.
Jeffries also made an important distinction for those within Tier 1: if your electricity comes to your business via a Tier 2 or 3 area, you may still have your power shut off. “If that spigot of electricity gets turned off, the power lines coming to your area could get shut off as well," he said. "PG&E has told some people that entire counties could be de-energized – they have to watch their whole system.”
Jeffries recommended answering a multi-tiered question about your business as soon as possible: How does electricity support your business/operations, specifically on lighting, cooling, computers, point of sale, telephones, refrigeration, security systems, gas pumps, ATMs and more. Secondly, how will community impacts on resources like traffic lights, cell towers, street lights impact your business?
“I suggest you walk through your business and see how much of these systems will be affected,” he said. “Walk through your day-to-day processes. Push data backups regularly and especially in advance of a shutoff. If you’re emergency plan is two steps: one, pick up the phone and two, call 911 – that is not a plan.”
“What can you do to prevent or minimize impacts – generators, batteries, solar, wind/water turbine – moving or adjusting operations,” Jeffries said. “Once you have a plan in place, test it and your equipment. Train your staff. Coordinate with partners and vendors. And once you have that plan in place, don’t trust it – test it. And have your staff walk through that plan – they may understand pieces of your plan better than you do.”
“We want you to think about what no power for seven days means for your business and, most importantly, what can you do now to mitigate those issues you anticipate happening,” Welch added.
Former Mill Valley Mayor Garry Lion, who sits on the board of the Marin Economic Forum and the Marin Disaster & Citizens Corps Council, told attendees that the City had obtained grant funding to revive the M'BER program, which in 2012 helped 22 local businesses deemed essential for post-disaster recovery efforts come up with a customized emergency plan template.
Lion said the updated version of the program will help select businesses – likely those spanning food service, medical supplies, pet supplies, lodging and building services – go through that process.
The 411: Mill Valley Fire Department & Mill Valley Chamber hosted a workshop for Mill Valley businesses on PG&E’s so-called Public Safety Power Shutoffs at the Mill Valley Community Center. An additional workshop is set for June 24 at Del Mar School in Tiburon at 10am.
For additional resources about public safety power shut-offs, check out this fact sheet on prepareforpower.com.