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Preparing for Disaster

Part of planning is preparation for dealing with a disaster. "The best thing we can do is prepare," comments Wes Warnock, a spokesman for SBC Communications Inc. (the former Southern Bell), based in San Antonio, Texas, which has operations in 13 states, covering a third of the U.S. population. "In California specifically, every central office has an emergency power plant with a diesel generator, which powers the office if commercial power is lost." Each office has three to four days’ worth of fuel on site, with the ability to bring in more, if necessary, to run the generators indefinitely.

In one case, when an El Niño storm washed out Highway 1 along the California coast, Big Sur was isolated, but phone service continued uninterrupted through flying in fuel by helicopter, Warnock reports.

In addition, there is a second battery backup that lasts for four to six hours if the diesel generator fails to activate. Warnock explains that the network operations center, which provides constant monitoring and surveillance of the network, would be notified that the central office is on battery and would take action to restore generator power.

Due to California’s propensity for earthquakes—the U.S. Geologic Survey predicts a 62% probability of at least one magnitude 6.7 or greater quake, capable of causing widespread damage, striking the San Francisco Bay region before 2032—all the telephone switching equipment has earthquake bracing to keep it from being knocked over. "An earthquake is something we have to be prepared for," Warnock says.

Similarly, PG"E prepares for floods in northern California, which are almost an annual occurrence, according to Coker. While electricity cannot be restored to flooded homes until the water recedes, it’s possible for unflooded homes to lose power by being cut off by floodwaters. To keep employees from being cut off, PG"E has been known to stage crews and equipment on the other side of the Sacramento River in advance if a storm is predicted. "We send the crews across the river so our customers won’t be isolated and don’t have to wait for the waters to recede," he says.

In addition, Coker notes, PG"E—which has its own meteorological department—notifies employees by pager 36 hours in advance of a major storm. The company also trims trees five to six days per week, year round, both to reduce the threat during fire season and to keep them from blowing into lines during a windstorm.

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