San Francisco business reporter Michael Liedtke and Los Angeles investigative reporter Justin Pritchard solved a central mystery of Pacific Gas & Electric’s international power shutoffs: why the utility was so prone to bungling intentional blackouts.
The story sprang from a tip that Pritchard received following an earlier exclusive looking at PG&E’s blackout response last fall. In a legal discovery response, PG&E had revealed it did not require emergency management personnel to be trained in emergency management. Liedtke set out to understand just how many of the utility”s emergency managers did have training.
The pandemic interrupted that reporting, but the pair revisited it just as blackout season returned to California. Their central finding was startling: Among the hundreds of people who handled the 2019 blackouts from PG&E’s emergency operations center, only a handful had any training in the disaster response playbook that California has used for a generation. The people managing the emergency hadn’t learned the fundamentals of managing an emergency in their home state.
Those fundamentals are part of the Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS), a response to a catastrophic Oakland Hills fire from another generation. Much like Sept. 11 galvanized changes in emergency communications systems, the Oakland fire was a catalyst event that led to a blueprint for how to respond to a crisis in California.
In response to the reporters’ questions, PG&E revealed to AP that only “several” emergency operations center workers or executives had any SEMS training, something not even the executive director of the California Public Utilities Commission knew.
The story rippled through the San Francisco Bay Area media market and outward from there, receiving strong play in broadcast, online and in print.