Senators Introduce Bills to Protect Sick, Elderly During Power Outages

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    City officials are weighing in on a series of bills co-introduced by Sen. Steve Glazer that would, among other things, protect vulnerable residents in the event of a PG&E power shutdown due to high wind conditions to prevent wildfires.
    Senate bills 801, 802 and 431 would provide power packs to those who need to be hooked up to devices, such as respirators, which became inoperable in the case of a power shutdown.
    The bills also would ensure hospitals can use backup diesel-powered generators for the duration of a planned utility power shutoff even if the governor has not declared a disaster or state of emergency.
    And the bills would require cell phone companies to provide at least 72 hours of backup power on their towers in the case of a shutdown, allowing cell service to continue.
    Glazer, of Orinda, co-authored the bills with Mike McGuire, a fellow Democrat who represents Healdsburg.
    Just how many Orinda residents would be affected by the power pack aspect of the bills is not known exactly, but PG&E is working on this.
    Moraga Orinda Fire District (MOFD) Chief Dave Winnacker says MOFD “does not have access to information regarding how many residents rely on power to maintain life support equipment. PG&E was collecting this information last year, but it has not been shared with local government.”
    As for the number of cell phone towers Winnacker says MOFD has an “informal understanding of the major telecom sites along the Oakland Berkeley Hills but do not have a definitive list of all sites in the district.”
    He says MOFD is engaged with Glazer’s staff on this issue and “are in full support of any legislative action that will increase the reliability of the cellular networks.”
    With regard to medical facilities that may be affected by the legislation, Winnacker says, “We are not aware of any facilities in the district that are categorized as hospitals. However, it is possible that several of the outpatient locations in the district could fall under this category depending on how it is interpreted.”
    Orinda Public Works Director Lawrence Theis was also unsure exactly how many residents rely on respirators and other devices. He says “the city is aware that we have roughly 200 Orinda households that have signed up for PG&E’s medical baseline discount rate. Generally it is one person per household, but could be more, but not everyone that qualifies for medical baseline necessarily needs respirators. I think the program is a bit broader on the type of medical devices.”
    Mayor Darlene Gee says the legislation is important. “While the planned power outages are just an inconvenience to many, for others there are potential life-threatening issues. Taking this step toward protecting people that may need extra support, as well as our ability to communicate when needed, will be a significant benefit for Orinda’s residents,” says Gee.
    More than 100,000 people are signed up for PG&E’s “medical baseline” designation, meaning they rely on electricity for their health. But getting it only means they get advanced notice of any planned power outages so they have time to move to a place that will not lose power.
    But, as Glazer points out, many disabled and elderly people cannot move or have no place to go. For someone on oxygen, medication that needs refrigeration, or in need of an electric wheelchair, an extended power outage can trap them without critical tools they need to stay alive.
    While PG&E recently announced a plan to deliver back-up battery packs to some of these customers, only about 500 packs will be available, far fewer than needed.
    “PG&E is responsible for maintaining a grid that can stay on in a windstorm without risk of causing fires,” Glazer says. “The least they can do is provide emergency power to those whose lives literally depend upon it.”
    Regarding the cell tower power backup part of the bill, McGuire says “our phones have become our lifeline. It’s how we receive emergency alerts. Telecom representatives assured us thousands of cell towers going down due to the lack of power wouldn’t happen. It’s simply not true. It’s time California mandates cell towers have backup power. Our bill isn’t about checking your Facebook status. It’s about making sure Californians have a lifeline in their greatest time of need.”

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