PG&E shutoffs highlight the usefulness — and uselessness — of technology in emergencies

The texts kept coming.

Due to a weather forecast PG&E may turn off power…Prepare a plan.

Arriving once, sometimes twice a day until the shutoff hit, the texts referred customers to PG&E’s website for updated information about the impending power shutoffs.

But just before the first shutoff on Oct. 9, 2019, many customers found that there was no website — it had crashed under a high volume of traffic. And some customers stopped receiving texts because the shutoff had knocked out their cell service, as well.

PG&E’s Public Safety Power Shutoff events left nearly one million customers across Northern California without power, and knocked out nearly 60% of cell towers in certain counties. It also highlighted critical gaps in communication infrastructure that local government agencies are now scrambling to address.

California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services spokesperson Bryan May emphasized that California residents need to develop a habit of turning on cell phone emergency alerts from both utilities and government agencies and checking public safety announcements posted on the internet.

“The more redundancy you can build into your own notification plan, the better,” said May.

Both state and local counties are trying to provide redundancy through social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The need for redundancy is crucial, especially since the once-dependable landline telephone is no longer immune to power shutoffs.

During the devastating Tubbs fire in 2017, Santa Rosa resident Anthony Covarrubias turned to social media and found a trusted source of information in a local journalist.

“She would tweet all through the night…she would hardly sleep,” said Covarrubias. “I haven’t been on Twitter since probably October of 2017, but then during [the recent PG&E public safety power shutoffs] I was refreshing her Twitter feed all the time.”

The Tubbs Fire also spurred the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office to install special emergency sirens, which alternate continuously between a high pitch and low pitch and are intended to alert residents of an emergency. The sheriff’s department announcement of the new sirens on Facebook implored residents to “to pay attention, turn on your social media.”

Officials in other counties also use social media during emergencies. Ray Kelly, an Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, said social media is generally a boon to both residents and the local government.

After the first shutoff in early October, Kelly and his team asked customers to post on Twitter when their power was restored so that the sheriff’s department could notify PG&E of lags in re-energization, if necessary.

“When we asked people, ‘Let us know when your power was back on’, it …[created] an interactive space that was taking place on social media between the community and between government,” said Kelly. “We were all working together for the same bit of knowledge.”

But Kelly acknowledges that social media strategies are limited.

“It is one of the best tools in our toolbox. But that being said, you cannot rely on it completely to be your entire strategy,” said Kelly.

Plus, not everyone uses social media, like Oakland resident Diana Velez.

“I’m the older generation,” said Velez. “I would probably go to a website, but I wouldn’t think about going to Twitter or Instagram. Social media is not my go-to for information.”

Velez lived through the Oakland firestorm of 1991, and understands the need for the precautionary shutoffs. She appreciates the text messages that PG&E sent in advance of the three shutoffs that occurred throughout October. But Velez thinks the utility could have done a better job keeping customers updated with status changes.

“If they would say…‘We’re waiting to see what the weather’s like right now…so we’re postponing [re-energization]’…we can plan around that,” said Velez.

The instantaneous nature of electronic communication systems can also mean increased frustration when there is conflicting information.

The night before the second round of power shutoffs, Santa Rosa resident Anthony Covarrubias was woken up by his phone, which was buzzing.

Covarrubias’ phone was receiving alerts from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and the Santa Rosa Police Department via Nixle, a notification system that has been adopted by local governments and agencies across the US.

The alerts arrived in Covarrubias’ phone, first in English, then in Spanish.

More alerts in both languages followed about evacuations, fire progress and highway closures. They didn’t end up affecting Covarrubias’ exact location, but they kept coming, including an advisory correcting what turned out to be an erroneous evacuation order.

“I am an information overloader…while my husband shut off his phone,” said Covarrubias.

With information being re-posted and cross-posted across platforms, Covarrubias relies most heavily on his county’s sheriff’s office for accurate information.

In Alameda County, Kelly reminds residents that sometimes the oldest technology is the best.

“When all else fails, when everything goes down, we know that it’s likely our radio stations will be up and running,” said Kelly.

Even if residents don’t have a portable, battery-powered radio, “you can get to a radio in your car and listen to AM radio,” he said.

During emergency situations, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office collaborates with KCBS, 106.9 FM and 740 AM, a local 24-hour, all-news radio station. Kelly says that during the first round of shutoffs the sheriff’s office tested their ability to phone into KCBS and local TV stations.

He also admits that there’s always more to do when it comes to keeping the public informed about best strategies.

“We’re due for a tweet or a message about tuning into the AM radio station if you are unable to communicate via cell phone,” said Kelly.

But even as safety officials attempt to patch gaps in local infrastructure, the responsibility of seeking and remaining informed about alternative communication solutions falls to residents.

After Sonoma County lost cell service during the first shutoff, Covarrubias and his husband brainstormed alternative communication strategies.

“Right after [the shutoff] we talked about getting radios, and I was like hell, maybe we’ll go satellite,” he said.

Covarrubias has never actually seen a satellite phone but knows that people use them in remote locations.

“At the very least…a classic radio with batteries, or even a hand crank.”


  • Irena Fischer-Hwang

    Irena Fischer-Hwang completed her bachelor’s (2011) and master’s degrees (2012) in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She received her doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University in 2019 for her dissertation work on bioinformatics and image compression. She was a producer for the science podcast Goggles Optional from 2016 through 2018. Her curiosity about science communication led her to data journalism at Stanford, and in 2018 she was awarded a Brown Institute for Media Innovation Magic Grant for her data journalism work as part of the Big Local Project team. She is excited to continue integrating her rigorous training in engineering with reporting through data journalism, and hopes to explore a variety of topics including algorithmic bias and accountability, tech privacy and gender equality. Previously, she was an Asian American Journalism Association’s 2018 Voices student program fellow and a 2019 Chips Quinn Scholar. She also serves as a peer editor and writer for NPR Scicommers, and her work has been published by NPR-member radio station KQED and

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