The other week Jen-Mei hosted a gathering of folks from our shared communities to trade information we’ve collected to date about emergency preparedness and get a sense of what felt the most interesting/engaging/raw for folks. We talked about the fires and PG&E shut-offs in California. We also shared personal information and stories, and wanted to share some folks' experiences in relationship to the power outages that we found particularly interesting or surprising. The following is based on a true story.
Imagine. You live in Oakland and don't own a car, but need to get to a doctor's appointment scheduled in Walnut Creek at a location that is inaccessible by public transportation. So you schedule a Lyft ride. You are on your way and you are happily scrolling through facebook posts in the backseat when you try to "like" your friend's oh-so-cute puppy video and are met with a greyed-out "like" button. What an annoying time for your cell service provider to fail!! "Oh well", you think, "there are worse things". Then your Lyft driver catches your eye in the rearview mirror and with a puzzled look shares that despite the heavy traffic, their map app is not updating and they are unsure of your ETA. "Waaaaaiiiit a minute," you think, as you realize that PG&E was scheduled to cut off service to parts of California today, "Lyft doesn't work when the power is down?!?"
That's right folks, anything that depends on electricity - including cloud-based services- fail when the power is off. That includes cell towers, facebook access, and....Lyft. Sure, PG&E may have power generator backups (whether or not this is true depends on city/county mandates in your area), but existing back-ups provide power for far less time than the 24+ hours PG&E has been shutting off power in the recent shut-offs. And even then, some of them are not maintained as well as one might think, leading us to question their functionality and ability to provide backup at all. Same goes for back up generators for cell service carriers. A photo from a recent presentation by Alan Thompson, a self-described "Accidental Advocate for community fire and communications safety," shows a photo of an exploded generator from the Placerville Fire. Boom. There goes our backup.
So what happened with our friend, the Lyft passenger? She made it to Walnut Creek, had her Doctor's appointment in the dark, and got a ride back to Oakland from the same Lyft driver who waited for her because they were unable to pull up other rides on their app! Not sure if they got paid for that, but nice person to follow through on the ride!
Moral of the story: if you’re planning to use your phone for anything other than taking pictures during the next earthquake or fire, plan again. (And consider signing up for one of our Ham radio classes! Ham radio - the sole communications tool for amateurs proven to both receive and transfer messages over long distances in an emergency.)