November 18, 2019
On the heels of a smaller PG&E power outage on October 9 that impacted about 800 residents, Mill Valley experienced a widespread PG&E power outage beginning the evening of Saturday, October 26 and extended to the afternoon/early evening of Tuesday, October 29. The “Public Safety Power Shutoff” (PSPS) is PG&E’s pre-emptive wildfire prevention safety response to a predicted strong wind event combined with high fire danger conditions throughout Northern California.
The impact was widespread – nearly 1 million meters in Northern California were without power, including about 123,000 meters in Marin. Mill Valley was completely without power – with over 6,000 homes and businesses impacted for the duration of the outage.
“This was an unprecedented event for us, and I thank the community and our staff for coming together in the face of a very disruptive and trying time,” City Manager Jim McCann said at a recent City Council meeting. “We made a big effort ahead of time to prepare our staff and the community for the shutoffs, and once it began, we worked to communicate information with the community, provide critical facilities, and ensure public safety. I am very proud of our response and I think the community was very appreciative.”
In preparation for the planned power shutoffs, over the summer, City staff developed a Draft Plan and Playbook and brought it to Council for their review and direction in September. Upon learning of the upcoming PSPS in late October, the City implemented the plan and began preparations. Public outreach kicked into high gear with emails, website and social media posts to communicate preparedness messages to the community and community partners such as the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Water District, Mill Valley Refuse and other service providers.
Fire, Police and Public Works added personnel resources to ensure full staffing levels to provide critical services to residents, and they procured and staged additional supplies and equipment ready for use. An example, Mill Valley Fire and Southern Marin Fire Protection District brought in more personnel to staff additional fire engines. In preparation for the event, Southern Marin had one additional engine in service and Mill Valley had a Type III staffed as part of an in-County Pre-Positioning strike team. Region-wide, Mill Valley contributed an additional Type 3 engine, with a total of 5 engines added to the Marin County Operational Area, resulting in 598 total overtime hours (reimbursable per the California Office of Emergency Services).
Using the recently installed generator, our Community Center served as the City’s primary Community Resource Center, offering indoor space to charge devices, conduct work, get updates, and access free showers. The resource was widely used, with approximately 7,000 visitors at the facility over the span of the outage. Center staff also offered free childcare to the children of City workers to make sure staff could come into work and further serve the community.
“I was really proud we were able to offer the Community Center as a resource for the community” Mayor Jim Wickham said. “The other Community Resource Centers around the area closed at 8 pm, but we kept ours open until 11 pm, and it was well used even at a late hour - a good indication of our commitment to meeting community needs. Thank you to staff and everyone who managed the response.”
“Our Community Center Staff did a fantastic job!” City Councilmember Stephanie Moulton-Peters said. “Big compliments to Recreation staff for offering shelter, information, charging and coffee, and friendly faces and kind words to the community!”
City Hall opened as a Charging Center on Monday morning, offering a place to charge devices and conduct work. City Hall was the hub of information for the power outage, as our public information team worked with City departments and our partners at the County of Marin to provide updates to the community in both digital and non-digital forms. This included keeping the City’s website www.cityofmillvalley.org up to date, which received about 7.5k page views over the span of the outage. Staff sent Nixle text and email messages, special MVConnect emails and posted over 50 updates to social media.
In addition to the digital messaging, staff also implemented strategies to make sure residents with limited access to the internet or their email stayed informed. These include distributing informational handouts at City facilities and assigning staff to community gathering places (such as Downtown and the East Blithedale Shopping Center) to offer information and answer questions. City Hall remained open throughout the outage, and our front desk staff helped answer hundreds of questions from community members.
Behind the scenes at City Hall, many offices were able to conduct business as usual despite the shutdown to keep the basic functions of the government running – such as our Finance and Human Resources Department, our Planning and Building Department, and our Engineering Division of Public Works.
Police and Fire staff added additional personnel resources and coordinated life-safety responses around town, including patrolling high fire risk areas and responding to parking violations, narrow road access issues, and traffic hazards. Our first responders responded to many requests for welfare checks and citizen assists, as well as requests for odor investigations and responding to downed power lines. Mill Valley’s Emergency Operations Center was set up (tables, chairs, phones) and was ready for staffing if City officials decided to activate the Center. In addition to serving in Mill Valley, several public safety staff were deployed to provide mutual aid to Sonoma County in response to the Kincaid Fire.
Public Works staff were kept busy fueling the backup generators at City facilities and traffic signals (dispensing over 2,000 gallons of fuel), and keeping essential services, like the Wastewater Treatment Plant and our Public Safety Building fully functional on backup power. During the high wind event and Red Flag Days, our Fire Department responded to 2 fires and 25 emergency medical calls. Fire, Police and Public Works staff responded to reports of 3 fallen trees and one very large branch, and quickly re-opened roadways to ensure public safety egress throughout the wind event. City Parking Enforcement Officers and our Community Service Officer issued Red Flag Zone informational and warning flyers to residents, businesses, and parked vehicles in the Miller Avenue Special Parking Zone.
Supporting Mill Valley Businesses
Throughout the outage, the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce served as an information conduit, dedicated to keeping its members informed in real time of the shutoffs and their impacts via all its communications channels, from social media and its websites to email blasts and direct one-to-one outreach. The Chamber developed an essential Disaster Preparedness/PSPS Toolkit for businesses to help them prepare, and during the outage they helped advise many businesses – from the small shops to larger stores – on how to weather this unprecedented loss of power and business for multiple days.
After the outage, the Chamber was quick to launch an outreach campaign to encourage community members to get out and support Mill Valley’s local shops, restaurants and businesses. We encourage everyone to heed the Chamber’s call and to get out and support our local businesses, many of whom suffered significantly due to the loss of business.
Debrief and Survey
“We are in the process of gathering lessons learned,” City Manager McCann said. “The idea is to understand better our response so we can improve and share with our neighbors and partner agencies.”
“I would like to hear from community members about what worked for them in terms of preparedness,” Councilmember Moulton-Peters said. “I would like to hear from them on what they could do to be better prepared next time.”
While we take in feedback from staff, elected officials, and partner agencies, we would like to hear from you as well. Click here to take our quick survey and share your thoughts. We thank you in advance for helping us in our review of the City’s response to the outage, and our assessment of community readiness. We will gather the information and use it to improve systems and policies to ensure we are building our resiliency and further preparing for future events.
“I found myself without a landline, or cell service. It is very frustrating to be told to check online or listen to cell messages when they are not available to me. Is there anything we can do to get Comcast and AT&T to take this problem seriously?” Mill Valley resident
With so much of our community losing internet, Wi-Fi and cell service, the inability to communicate and get updates was frustrating to everyone in Mill Valley during the outage. City staff is looking into what actions are available to better shore up the telecommunications infrastructure in our area. The City of Mill Valley, as a local jurisdiction, could possibly amend our Municipal Code to encourage the telecom companies to provide longer backup power for the towers in Mill Valley City Limits. Also, the City may work with the League of California Cities to support legislation to require telecom companies to provide backup power for cell sites. We have staff reviewing these options and will keep the community posted on next steps.
We are always looking forward to prepare for the next emergency, and we want to remind the community that the prospect for additional power outages is real - whether due to another PG&E planned shutoff, or from natural disasters such as severe winter storms or earthquakes. We cannot emphasize enough the need for every home and business to have an emergency kit and plan, so that each community member can provide for their own basic needs for a few days before power is restored.
The City wishes to express its thanks to all the first responders that kept our community safe during the power outage, along with all of the City staff that kept essential facilities and services running throughout the ordeal. We also want to thank members of the local business community that continued to provide services through the outage, as well as all the community members that took time to prepare, worked together to share resources and information. and check on their neighbors.
"I am glad to see in the face of adversity that the community can come together to help each other! Thank you to the staff and people of the Mill Valley area." - Mill Valley resident