Friday, September 9, 2011

Old disasters, new media

An operator error yesterday caused a power failure leaving 5 million people in San Diego and nearby areas in the dark. Although communication efforts used a combination of old media and new media, many of the affected people in my hometown were literally and figuratively in the dark.

Unlike the Gray Davis-Enron-energy mismanagement blackouts of a decade ago, the San Diego outage fit the pattern of the major East Coast summer outages such as the great New York blackouts: a single problem cascaded failure throughout the system. At times of peak air conditioning load, there’s little margin for error in our electric grid.

In this case, an operator error in Arizona around 3:30pm Thursday temporarily shut down one major source of imported power for San Diego. The result would have been brownouts, but when the voltage on the San Diego grid dropped below normal, the 2.2GW San Onofre power plant was taken offline and the system collapsed at 3:40pm. Some 3 million San Diego residents were without power, as were Imperial County, portions of Orange County, the Palm Springs area, and Northern Baja California.

San Diego doesn’t have a lot of experience with disasters. We don’t get hurricanes, tornadoes or blizzards, although the mountain passes are (rarely) closed for snow or wind. None of the state’s major recorded earthquakes have occurred in the region, although the 1971 Sylmar quake did cause me to run to a doorway. Unlike LA, there have been no major riots, although the 2003 Cedar Fire and 2007 Witch Creek Fire each caused scattered deaths and $100+ million in property damage.

As it turns out, at the time of the blackout I was driving to San Diego for a Marconi Society banquet honoring communications pioneers Bob Galvin, Irwin Jacobs and Jack Keil Wolf. Because I was in a car, I was listening to the radio, and heard about the blackout less than an hour later, and heard the 5pm press conference that explained what had happened.

My inlaws were sitting at home with no TV, radio or Internet and didn’t know what was going on. I called them (from my cellphone in San Diego to their landline) and told them what I knew.

I was unable to reach my mom and assumed it was because she had switched from POTS to VoIP for the free long distance. As it turns out, Cox provides for battery backup for the MTA to work during the power failure. (In fact, I didn’t realize I was calling my inlaws on their Cox VoIP rather than Ma Bell’s POTS). However, my mom lives in a large senior complex and while the POTS was reaching the building, none of the phone lines were powered to the individual apartments.

At dinner, some of the other guests were surfing or the local paper to find news of the power outage. Cellular systems were taxed — and sometimes overloaded or some cells were without power — but in general calls were going through better than after an earthquake (when everyone decides to call at once).

Driving around, I heard various authorities said “go to our Twitter feed”. The local utility, SDG&E, did a good job of updating the news as it came in — including a link to the news that all power was restored by 3:25 a.m. Friday. The Twitter feed for San Diego County government never noted that all power was restored, but did say county courts would be in session. The San Diego Airport tweeted problems from Thursday night but had nothing Friday. Similarly, the region’s main emergency preparedness agency had no posts since this one Thursday night:

RT: @SDGE While we're getting power back on to some areas, it will be some time tomorrow before all power is restored to region. #sdoutage
So as with other web-enabled communications strategies, such efforts are meaningless unless you make the commitment to keep your content up-to-date: daily or weekly for most organizations, but hourly for major institutions in a time of emergency.

In the end, the only communication medium that worked reliably was decidedly old media: news radio. The local news/talk station, KOGO, dates back to 1925. Although they (and other stations) had the cable news election night/disaster syndrome — babbling when there’s nothing new — nonetheless they were able to broadcast accurate up-to-date news to the widest possible audience.

In other words, mass communications run by journalists trumped social media run by amateurs or government officials. Now if only old media could find a business model that keeps them in business.

The outage certainly makes me appreciate the crank-powered Grundig radio that (ironically) my mom gave me one Christmas. However, it takes a lot of cranking to listen to a half hour of radio, so when I got home I plugged in the charger to the wall so I’ll be able to listen for an hour or so before I have to crank.

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