A New Year Resolution Must!

GELFAND’S WORLD-This isn't the column where I go over the predictions I made at the end of 2013, because I didn't make any. Instead, let's consider suggestions and recommendations that were made over the course of the year, but not followed. One suggestion is particularly timely this week. 

We've just had more electrical outages and phone service disruptions. History suggests that the majority of such problems come from wind and rain, but they can also come from earthquakes and fires. For some reason, in spite of some real progress in disaster preparedness we have seen over the course of 2014, our city governments and agencies haven't quite fixed one problem, even though it is well defined and easily solved. 

The problem is that when the electricity goes out, a bunch of us sit around, freezing in the dark, without much access to information about when the lights will come back on and the dial tone will resume. I remember my experience of some months ago when a substantial part of the area I live in went dark. It was really dark, without traffic signals or street lights, and the electric garage door wouldn't work. There are ways to open garage doors without electricity, but it didn't seem worth the effort, so I sat with my emergency chemical illumination stick, expecting the whole thing to end at any moment. 

But it didn't. Hours went by. I tried the portable radio, but the major news stations weren't much use. They did say that there were widespread power outages. For those of us in the dark, that kind of information is kind of a "fill in your own joke here" sort of experience. They tell you what you already know, but not the information you would like to have, which is when the miserable event will be over. 

It's a shame, because our civilization has had radio for the better part of a century, and we've had inexpensive portable radios for the better part of half a century. When these devices first came in, they were referred to as transistor radios, or "transistors" for short, and everybody just had to have one, if nothing else, to take to the beach. 

For the past several decades, the authorities have been telling us that we should all have a portable radio as part of our disaster supplies. 

The one that I have is probably 20 years old, and it still works fine. There are even technical options available. If you don't like to buy nine volt batteries, you can buy a portable radio that runs off power you supply using a hand crank. They sell these to campers, but the idea of tossing one into your supply cabinet makes sense. 

Over the past few years, Los Angeles has had quite a few power outages that went on for as long as half a dozen hours. The storm driven damage that happened on Friday struck numerous areas. 

You could get information about the extent of such outages and estimated repair times off of the internet. Oh, sorry -- when the electricity goes out, most of us will be without working computers. A few smug preparedness types have battery backups installed, but even then, the backup is not really intended to give you long term service, but to protect your data from a sudden power failure for the few minutes it takes to turn the equipment off. 

In short, when the lights go out, the vast majority of people will be stuck in a situation that not only lacks the comforts of home, it is a situation in which people are denied critical information.

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I use the example of a these relatively short power outages because even those are irritating. But the argument holds equally well for a serious disaster which would knock out power and other amenities for days. 

It doesn't have to be "the big one," as we are fond of calling a major earthquake. There are other situations that could do serious damage to one or more of our utilities. 

How will people in the affected regions find out what they ought to be doing, how long they are going to be affected by outages, and critically, whether the situation they are in, involves dangers that they can avoid or reduce? 

I hate to nag, but we have the technology and the infrastructure, and we've had it since the 1960s. We've got the portable radios and the radio stations, so all we have to do is create the organizational structure and the authority to make use of them. 

Why can't the cities and the county create the communications structures and organizations that will tell us when the lights will come back on? It doesn't seem like that difficult a concept. What's missing is the simple understanding on the part of the utilities, the major radio stations, and the regional authorities about how to put all this nice old technology to use when the public health and safety would benefit. 

In other parts of the country which have winter storms, the radio and television stations give fairly comprehensive bulletins as to which school districts have cancelled their classes, which government agencies are taking the day off (and which ones aren't), and which roads are out of commission. It's an important part of civilization in those areas, and it works pretty well. 

Perhaps we are behind the times in this regard simply because we don't have snow storms? But we do have the occasional serious rain storm, and we also have wind storms that can do a lot of damage. It's time that the authorities go beyond fixing things, and make an effort to give real time information that will be passed along. We can use all of the standard technologies, including AM radio, cell phones, and dedicated phone lines. 

Might I suggest a meeting or two in which we discuss how to get from where we are to where we ought to be? If the Fire Department can't figure this out, then perhaps the neighborhood council coalition could start things up. 

Let's host a meeting with representatives of the radio industry, the DWP, the city government, and the emergency response authorities, and start to work out a system by which the major radio stations can provide timely and pertinent information to areas of the city that need it.


(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected]






Vol 12 Issue 101

Pub: Dec 16, 2014