Southern California, September 8, 2011, 3:45 p.m.: Crud, my computer just shut down. It had been an uneventful day at the ranch studio to this point. I was finishing the day’s work on a project and looking forward to riding my horse before it got dark; now my computer flat-lines. Great…, what next?
Hit the television power switch on the remote, nothing… Power light on the plotter is off too, Huh? Went to the main breaker to see if the circuit to the studio had tripped. Nope, the wheel-of-debt inside the meter was not turning so the solution was not going to be “just the flip of a breaker away”. The problem just ratcheted up a notch.
Called San Diego Gas and Electric (SDGE) but could not get through, circuits were overloaded. Living in a rural area it is not unusual for the power to go out from time to time and take it in stride. We also have those raging Santa Ana wildfires every year, but a quick scan of eastern mountains showed no hint of smoke and living near the airport where the tankers stage, I didn’t hear or see any tanker or helicopter activity.
Walked out to my truck and turned on the radio but no information about any power outage. Strange, must be a local power outage, or maybe just the transformer to my place.
Using my iPhone, I called a couple of neighbors. One not home, the other had no power either. The ratchet turns another notch.
Ok, so this is starting to look a little more serious than a tripped breaker.
Called my wife, who works in a corporate office downtown, and their power is out too. With no backup power, everyone was told to go home. A few minutes later, she calls back to say the security gates to the underground parking garage have no backup power so all the cars are trapped inside with no way out. Great…this situation is escalating from mere inconvenience to a “what next” event.
Cell phone rings, wife says a few of her co-workers with cars trapped in the garage had decided to stay in the building (being a biotech company they have good security), overnight if necessary, until someone could get the security gates open to the underground garage (or I come to pick her up). I reminded her that she had her Get Home Bag (GHB ), just in case. Whenever we travel beyond our rural community each vehicle has a pack loaded with gear so we can hike back home (dreaded EMP  event) and hers was in her truck. That meant she had MREs , water, first aid, hiking boots, sleeping bag, change of clothes, etc.
Now I am hearing sirens in town (a mile away). Even though I do not let my diesel tank get below the half way mark, I thought I would run into town to see what was going on and top off my tank anyway. What a shocker when I got to Main Street, to see the stoplights not working and lines already spilling out of the service stations into the street. There are only six stoplights in town and with none of them working the main street (small town and we really do have a Main Street) was a complete parking lot with stopped cars.
The parking lots for the two grocery stores in town were filling up too. I later heard that transactions could only be made in cash as the computers were out and they only had battery back-up lights. My ‘alert flag’ colors are starting to change.
Having been through the wildfire drill quite a few times, but well along in the Beans, Bullets, Band-Aids (BBB) departments I was comfortable as I drove back to my ranch watching others scramble to get in line at the few gas stations and two markets. The gas station lines were particularly futile since the pumps had no power anyway. Waiting in line was for the desperate people that were so low on fuel they had no choice but to park and wait.
Wife calls before I get back to the ranch to say someone managed to get the security gates open but now she is stuck in the gridlock of everyone trying to get home and every single stop light was out. What normally is a 40-minute commute turned into over a four-hour stop and go nightmare.
I now hear on my truck radio that the power outage extends beyond my small town and into other areas of San Diego, as well as east and north of the downtown area. However, no news on where or how it started the extent of coverage or estimate of when it will be back on. Fog-of-war starts to set in.
The radio newscaster talks in general terms about the power outage, but again no specific or useful information, just as it always is during the wildfires. During those, I did not evacuate and stayed to protect my property (yes, we did have looters). During those fires, one of the most frustrating things was the useless news coverage. Then, while watching the television news coverage (when the television had power), the smoke outside was sometimes so thick I could not see ten feet let alone down to my horse corals. I needed specific information (street names would have been nice) on where the fire was in real time to make go-no go decisions. Instead, the news broadcasters spoke of the fire only in general terms. Kind of like tornado news coverage on Fox News about a tornado in Oklahoma. Nice to know about as you casually watch television, however, a bit lacking if you are living the event and need information to make critical decisions, fast. Local news needs to do a better job at this.
After the last two Santa Ana fire experiences, I realized that Beans, Bullets, and Band-Aids did not address what I consider another critical category- Communications (comms). Consequently, I went down the ham radio road to fix that deficiency. I have my General license, which gives me access to High Frequency (HF ) bands not available to a Technician license, a two band handheld radio, plus a HF mobile rig that will really reach out and touch somebody on HF bands. My son has the exact same license and gear and we routinely communicate with our dipole antennas (aimed at each other) from southern California to where he lives north of Los Angeles, without the use of repeaters, or computers. This met our comms goal of not having to rely on anyone to “help” us with our comms. All we need is our gear and a 12 volt DC battery.
Now it is getting closer to sunset. Check on horses to be sure they have water and feed. Filled extra water barrels for horses since during the last big Santa Ana fire the local water department generators stopped working. Set out flashlights throughout the house and studio. Also, set out candles and several kerosene lanterns just in case.
It is a warm evening so decided to set up comm center outside on the deck where I had a view of the surrounding area. Lit the kerosene lantern. Grabbed my handheld ham radio, car top magnetic antenna and a cookie bake sheet. The magnetic antenna centered on the bake sheet acts like the roof of the vehicle, which provides much better reception than the standard rubber-duck antenna. This way I can set up my UHF/VHF station remote from my vehicle. Added a writing tablet and pens, several flashlights, snacks, comfortable director’s chair and switched on the radio to see what was really going on.
As it gets darker, the reality of the situation starts to set in. Being a rural area, when it gets dark, it is not like being in the city, it is a lot darker. We also have dark-sky restrictions for outdoor lighting because of our proximity to the Mount Palomar Observatory, and with the power out everywhere, tonight, dark has become pitch black; the occasional vehicle on the road is the only light I see. I hear a few generators running and now see a few dim lights in the distance.
Scanning my programmed repeater frequencies, I find that someone has set up an unofficial network (“Net”) where, finally, some useful information is being provided. I quickly learn that the power outage extends beyond the San Diego area, into Mexico, east to Arizona, and up to the southern part of Los Angeles. The cause is still under investigation. Time to get the grid back up, unknown. Not good. Wife is still in traffic so using the “Find My iPhone” app, I monitor her progress in real time on the map display of my iPhone.
Listening to my handheld, I check FaceBook on my iPhone and see many postings about the outage, mostly questions and speculative assumptions being posted compared to the verified info I hear on my FT-60 radio.
The fellow acting as Net Control is doing a good job of fielding questions and passing information. Requests are coming in for ham operators to help out at a hospital; someone needs a prescription delivered to their house; is the local CVS pharmacy still open for prescriptions, can anyone stop by such and such an address to check on an elderly couple; water is needed for the volunteers directing traffic at the stop light locations.
A local emergency assistance group (ham operators) break out their generators and lights and set them up at the stop light intersections so those directing traffic are more visible.
The Net traffic is increasing and one of the owners of the repeater keys up her mike to say she is monitoring this frequency and eventually steps in as the Net control to give the first fellow a well-deserved break. A question is asked about the backup generator for the repeater and she tells everyone that it would run for at least a week with no problem. Later, things ratchet up another notch as she is replaced by a fellow who takes over as Net control and announces that this frequency will be restricted to essential communications only. At this point, we are very close to the repeater being commandeered for official emergency communications only.
As new information is transmitted, there was the recurring questions of “where did you hear this?” What is your source? Can you confirm, etc. Because it is the nature of ham radio operators to be precise in relaying accurate communications the information being passed was specific and useful, not at all like the local news. So having been monitoring Face Book while listening to the ham, I started posting information I thought useful to Face Book. Before I know it, I have quite a few Facebook friends posting that I am their source for useful and reliable information.
My wife finally drives up and describes the traffic nightmare she just went through. She sits and listens to the ham radio traffic for a short while then goes to bed. It has been a long commute home for her.
I stayed up monitoring the radio until after midnight. By then the radio traffic had slowed and there was still no information on the cause of the outage or when the grid would be back up. Nothing left to do but get some rest and see what a new day brings.
As we all know the power started being restored in the early morning and everything pretty much returned to normal by the end of the next day.
After Action notes for this short-term event:
- Keep the fuel in your vehicle over half full at all times. Spare fuel cans are a plus.
- Work on your BBB supplies. You can never have enough.
- Have a Get Home Bag (GHB ) in your vehicle. You never know when you will need it to get home. My wife is the only person at her workplace that had all the gear she needed to either stay at the workplace or make the trek home if it came to that.
- Get a ham license, some basic gear and familiarize yourself with how this valuable asset works.
While this did not turn into a BBB event, having those preps adequately covered made this much less stressful.
I later heard that the grocery stores sold out of water and ice faster than anything else did but other shelves were starting to look bare as the night wore on.
On another note, a friend of a friend who owns a precision gun store in another city (AR  and high-end sniper rifles) had to call the police because of attempted break-in attempts during this grid down episode. Were just these opportunistic thieves or more desperate types looking longer-term at the situation and opportunity?
This event was just a hiccup. It lasted less than 12 hours. It took everyone completely by surprise and happened as people were getting off work. Those that were prepared were able to focus on important tasks, those that were not prepared stood in line. Having BBB is fine. Having comms provided invaluable real time information about the situation.
There are three stages humans go through to make decisions in stressful situations: Denial, Deliberation, and Decision (DDD). How long a person lingers in the (Denial) “this can’t be happening to me” stages depends on many factors. Spending too much time in this stage can lead to bad consequences. Once they realize it is really happening to them, people will naturally Deliberate on how serious, long term, threatening their situation is. Timely and accurate information is critical at this stage. Do not let the ‘Paralysis of Analysis’ tendency creep in at this point. Get reliable information since it is important to get to stage three quick. Like stage one, Denial, the faster you get though the Deliberation stage, the faster you get to the most important stage. Now it is time to make a Decision. Good or bad, this is where the rubber meets the road; go-no go, bug-in, bug-out. Not having real time, accurate information can lead to wasting too much time going through the first two of the DDD stages or worse yet, not making any, or making the wrong Decision based on completely inaccurate, or out of date, information.
If you are reading this, someone thinks you have some interest and understanding of the need to be prepared. Regardless of where you are in your journey, have your basic BBBs covered. Consider though, how important it is to also have comms so you go through the DDD process faster, and make the correct Decision in phase 3. We all know knowledge is power. Good comms could be that knowledge that saves you or your loved ones life. Just ask any leadership military person about command and control.
Consider budgeting some time and money and get your ham license and some gear. I see more and more articles appearing in the blogs about ham radio. There are good reasons for this. I have never regretted going down that road and having the fourth leg of my prepping table supported by good comms. A four-legged table is a lot sturdier to stand on than a three-legged stool (Beans, Bullets, Band-Aids, + comms). Hope for the best, but plan for the worst!