SAN LUIS OBISPO, CALIFORNIA - On the evening of Sunday, June 23rd, 2013, over 145,000 customers in San Luis Obispo County experienced a major power-outage that was caused by equipment failure at a PG&E substation. Several Cal Poly students and alumni from the Cal Poly Amateur Radio Club (CPARC, callsign: W6BHZ) mobilized to assist in the amateur radio response to the outage. This response consisted of collecting information from remote stations as to their current status, and broadcasting information obtained by net control from official channels.
CPARC demonstrated the importance of amateur radio emergency communications support in a professional and timely manner, providing the most current first-hand reports to the community. At least one public radio station, KPYG-FM , reportedly lost power and was unable to provide the public with emergency updates regarding the power outage. Several community residents also noted that “we have no local radio news stations reporting”  and that there was just “‘canned’ programming”  but no actual emergency updates. Fortunately, some residents have radio scanners and were listening to the radio net managed by CPARC on 146.67MHz quoted having “always been my source for independent reports of accounts throughout the county” and “providing the most updates” . These statements all reinforce the need for more effective emergency response from the local news agencies and emphasize the necessity for a well developed amateur radio communications network such as the one supported in San Luis Obispo County (www.sloecc.org).
San Luis Obispo county maintains several emergency communication centers throughout the county, including ECC-16 located on the Cal Poly campus and operated by the Cal Poly Amateur Radio Club in the Electrical Engineering Building, Room 123. In addition to both short and long range radios, ECC-16 equipment includes emergency backup batteries and generator power to ensure that communication equipment and room lighting are kept online during any event which includes power loss.
Initial reports of power outages and brownouts in San Luis Obispo occurred at 2120 on the local W6BHZ club repeater (146.760MHz and 442.300MHz). Once it was ascertained that this was not a momentary glitch, a group of CPARC members started heading to campus to activate the club’s radio room as ECC-16. While these operators were en-route to campus, a temporary “ECC-16 portable” was assembled from personal equipment by Marcel Stieber AI6MS and Kenneth Finnegan W6KWF near Santa Rosa Park. This allowed CPARC to quickly begin a communications net to begin collecting information as to how many amateur radio operators were available to assist and how far the power outage spread. No other ECCs had yet stepped up as net control on the county-wide SLOECC repeater (146.670MHz), so ECC-16 portable opened the county-wide net as well.
Once the generator at ECC-16 was brought online, net control was passed from “ECC-16 portable” to David Troy KJ6RPX and Chris Blackmer KJ6MNK at ECC-16 on the Cal Poly campus to continue running the city and county-wide nets.
No serious incidents were reported on the SLOECC net, but having the single channel for collecting and curating information on the power outage was likely reassuring to listeners. The PG&E Info line was quickly overloaded, and other customers began calling 911 emergency services for information on the outage , which demonstrates the need for this kind of information broadcasting in SLO county. If the power outage were to escalate or become protracted, there would have been great value in the SLOECC net already being active for county-wide communications. As power began to be restored to customers and any further major events appeared unlikely, the SLOECC net was closed at 2327 local time and ECC-16 deactivated.
In addition to the press release, which I got help on from Marcel, I wrote a more comprehensive and succinct post-mortem than my last blog post:
Appendix A: Post-Mortem Analysis by Kenneth Finnegan, W6KWF
- Battery and generator backups for ECC-16, the W6BHZ repeater, and the SLOECC repeater all appeared to operate as expected. ECC-16 only had one gallon of gasoline on-site for generator operation.
- ECCs should make sure they have sufficient fuel on-site.
- Future SLOECC drills should include acquiring fuel from emergency sources. For ECC-16 this would be through Cal Poly Transportation Services.
- No other active ECCs were heard on the SLOECC net.
- SLOECC activation policies and method of activation should be publicly documented. Who makes the activation call? How do they notify ECCs?
- Auto-activation policies should be considered.
- Thanks to battery backups, Internet connectivity was maintained at both ECC-16 and ECC-16 portable. Net traffic included remote stations reading PG&E’s website to net control, which was redundant and unnecessary due to ECC Internet connectivity.
- Future training might include net control operators announcing the current status of ECCs and their alternative communication channels available.
- An increasingly important part of an ECC’s power backup should include a bank of powered USB ports for charging handheld devices. Cell phones include important capabilities, such as taking pictures and video, which would be important for more serious events.
- Battery-backed USB ports and major brands of phone charging cables should be made available at ECCs for prolonged operations.
- It is important to be able to have separate operators on the local and county-wide repeaters in the ECC. Running two nets was problematic with both radios mounted in the same place without headsets.
- Local and county-wide operating positions in the ECC should be separated to allow two operators to handle traffic simultaneously.
- Multi-operator/ multi-channel net control training should be considered.
- Net control logging and offline networked computer solutions need to be implemented, tested, and trained on to ensure effective communications support. (I.E. CAD, IRC, Winlink, paper logs, etc.)
- Community members mentioned tuning to 146.670MHz for timely and accurate disaster information.
- Operators should remember that amateur radio communications have a wide non-ham audience. It is important to keep net traffic clear and understandable.
In short, everything worked, but most things could have been better. I wasn't able to attend the SLOECC board meeting where this report was presented, so I haven't gotten any feedback on it yet.