OPINION: “Don’t rely on PG&E during outages. Take responsibility for your own safety.”

PG&E outages attempt to prevent wildfires

The burden of public safety sure is a controversial one. A writer for the San Francisco Chronicle has claimed that the October 2019 PG&E outages put the responsibility for preventing wildfires squarely on the shoulders of millions of Californians.

True as it may be that millions of Nor Cal residents (… two million, in fact) were affected by the planned power outages and that many of the most vulnerable were left in precarious situations (to say the least), I can’t help but wonder why there seems to be so little focus on individual responsibility for preparedness.

Of course there were things that PG&E could have done better, but what about the things that residents could have done better? Why aren’t we talking about those?

The PG&E outages were predictable

The prospect of power outages to prevent fires is nothing new. Companies have done that for years as a means of controlling risk of wildfires, especially in strong winds. But it’s not only the frequency of planned outages that makes them predictable: the residents of wildfire risk areas were themselves among the parties that have historically called on power giants like PG&E to shut off power when risks of fires were high.

So – correct me if I’m wrong – but it seems that the PG&E outages were predictable. And as they were predictable, I would say there seems to be a fair ol’ case for arguing that we, collectively, need to take more responsibility for our own safety.

Now, of course, there is a lot more to this story. There are questions over who should or should not be cut off, what provisions companies should put in place before cutting power off, and what role public institutions have in making up for any gaps in protection (human rights laws demand action of states in some circumstances, in fact).

But those – and related – questions aside, we have to be clear that this was never just as simple as there being a heightened risk of fire and PG&E pulling the plug on people preemptively. With PG&E alone, there is a long history of risk mitigation debates among governing bodies and even legislative measures that have been taken to spur meaningful preventative action.

If outages are predictable, we have no reason not to prepare

One thing does seem relatively straightforward to me: the power companies are not the only ones that should be weighed down by the burden of public safety.

We, the public, have to shoulder some of that responsibility ourselves.

If you have a medical device that requires power, make sure you have a generator or batteries as a back up. If you have hundreds of dollars worth of frozen food you do not want to spoil, find a secondary means of cooling it. If you need large amounts of fuel to get to work or take your kids to school, store some in reserve for high risk times of the year when it’s likely to be harder to get to the pump.

I expect to receive some criticism for this piece, but it seems so clear to me that we’ve got to pull our socks up when it comes to individual preparedness. It’s not the government’s job to care for us all like helpless babies, and it’s not the job of corporations, either.

If you are able to do so, take responsibility for your own safety. And if you are aware of someone who cannot help themselves in this manner for whatever reason (physical or mental incapacity, financial hardship, etc.), step up to the plate and offer to take some responsibility for them, too.

When millions are at risk of predictable events and ample warnings of power outages and the like are given, what excuses have we really for failing to prepare?

Camilla Barker-DeStefano

Camilla Barker-DeStefano

Dr. Camilla Barker-DeStefano (Oxon) is a disaster lawyer, author, and founder of the Crisis Academy.

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