Santa Barbara County grand jury raises concerns over emergency alert communications

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The Santa Barbara County Grand Jury recently released a report recommending changes to county communications with residents during public safety power shutoffs and other emergencies.

During a public safety power shutoff, a utility provider, such as Pacific Gas and Electric, turns off power lines to prevent them from sparking a fire during certain conditions. Potentially leaving people without power for days, shutoffs could be an issue for those who depend on electricity to run medical devices or refrigerate their medications, the report states.

POWER DOWN The Santa Barbara County grand jury criticizes public safety power shutoff communications with residents. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • POWER DOWN The Santa Barbara County grand jury criticizes public safety power shutoff communications with residents.
Utility companies try to contact customers dependent on electricity to run medical devices prior to a shutoff, but they can only do so if customers register for a program notifying the company of their devices. People who are not registered or who depend on electricity for other medical needs usually only receive extra attention during a shutoff from a county agency, the report states. In Santa Barbara County, people dependent on electricity for medical issues receive the same emergency notification as other residents.



“[The county Office of Emergency Management] does not make a separate or increased effort to notify people medically dependent on electrical power,” the report states. “For example, ReadySBC has no provision for including such information when signing up [for alerts.]”

The jury recommends that the county Board of Supervisors allocate funding to the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Department of Public Health to identify all county residents who are dependent on electricity for essential medical needs.

In addition, the jury found that residents who don’t understand either English or Spanish are at risk of missing warnings. The jury found the same is true for people whose landlords or property managers hold their electricity accounts.

“Mixtec languages are not included, but [the Office of Emergency Management] is working on them for both [public safety power shut offs] and emergencies,” the report states. “For [shutoffs], people whose electricity accounts are held by landlords or property managers need to sign up for Zip Code Alerts.”

In its report, the jury also criticizes county websites that residents would turn to during an emergency, including readysbc.org. The jury claims these websites are difficult to navigate and not connected to one another.

“Santa Barbara County’s emergency information and advice for the public is scattered over several websites, which are not coordinated, infrequently updated, sometimes confusing, and may not link to each other,” the report states.

Additionally, the jury recommends that the Board of Supervisors lobby the state Legislature to require power companies to receive input from local governments prior to initiating a power shutoff, which currently isn’t the case.

The jury lists five findings and a recommendation for each that it requests the county Board of Supervisors respond to within 90 days. Read the full report here. ∆

—Zac Ezzone


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