Carriers Struggle with Backup Power Amid California Fires

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Despite layers of warning systems from California counties in fire ravaged regions, residents are found cut off from communication amid downed power lines and cell towers. 

As dry land conditions and the recent heat wave ignited the LNU Lightning Complex Fire and other Bay Area wildfires, county officials used a “hi-lo” siren to warn residents to evacuate. Henry Wofford, public information officer, said the system is used to ensure residents without power or cell access know to evacuate. 

Several residents in the evacuation zones took to Twitter to report they never received emergency alerts due to power outages.   

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, San Mateo county resident Steve Portigal expressed frustration about the emergency warning system. Portigal reportedly received a link on his cell phone Tuesday evening but the link took him to COVID-19 resources instead of wildfire information. 

AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast plan for such outages by using backup batteries or generators. Comcast spokesperson Joan Hammel said the company uses backup generators to ensure continued internet access during a power outage. Depending on the length and size of the outage, however, sustained service is not always feasible. 

“The size and scope of this heat wave is immense,” Hammel said. “There is only so long we can support services on generators.” Even people with generators will lose internet access if the distribution center loses power. 

The California Public Utilities commission voted in July to require 72 hours of backup power at cell towers during emergency situations, reported the San Francisco Chronicle. Providers have until June 2021, to develop a resiliency plan and implement the required commitment.

“While we are doing everything possible to minimize the impact of power outages, there are discrete areas where we cannot install generators due to topographical or other constraints,” said Verizon spokesperson Heidi Flato. “In these rare cases, some customers may experience service disruptions or degraded network performance until commercial power is restored.” 

AT&T spokesperson Jim Greer said, “We understand the importance of keeping customers and first responders connected during emergencies, including power shut-offs. That is why we have invested more than $8.7 billion in our California networks from 2017 to 2019, and announced a three-year, $340 million plan to add backup power to more cell sites.”

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