Businesses throughout the San Francisco Bay area discovered
just how vulnerable they are to crises last Tuesday when a Pacific Gas & Electric
worker managed to black out the entire peninsula for half a day.
The cable operator that serves the area,
Tele-Communications Inc., spent days refreshing set-tops that had lost their memories with
the power outage.
San Francisco-based ZDTV fared a little better, with only
an 18-minute break in its uplink, which was actually tied to a pre-existing problem.
"We now respect the need for flashlights in our desks,
and stashes of Diet Coke," said Peggy Keegan, marketing and communications director
TCI was still trying to rebound from the outage days later.
Its cluster has 250,000 customers on the peninsula, said company spokesman Andrew Johnson.
The operator still tried to do business that day, and
managed to complete 178 of 495 repair and installation jobs the day of the outage. With
traffic signals out, workers were slowed by gridlock, and many homeowners couldn't
make it home for appointments or were called away by outage-related crises. The company
was able to contact all but 15 households scheduled for work to explain and reschedule,
But the biggest problem generated by the outage was the
reaction of the old Zenith Electronics Corp. set-tops in use in San Francisco. TCI's
generators kicked on immediately, and for up to an hour and a half there were
"signals, but [most people couldn't] see them," Johnson said.
Unfortunately, the outage went on for hours, and when it
ended, TCI discovered that 110,000 of the cable boxes in Bay area homes needed to be
"refreshed" after the power was restored, resulting in a rash of angry calls.
Twenty-four hours after power was restored Tuesday, the
operator had reactivated 70,000 set-tops. The remaining 40,000 were probably additional
outlets, he speculated, so service restoration continued through the week as those outages
TCI tried to handle the call volume by doubling its night
shift. It paid day workers overtime to stay over to handle complaints.
ZDTV's office building lost power, but the studio a
few blocks away resumed activities just five seconds later when generators automatically
"We debriefed on the Western Show in the dark"
after cell phones became swamped and the phones no longer worked, Keegan said.
ZDTV felt in good enough shape, powerwise, that it extended
its electricity to help out the Bay Guardian newspaper near its studio. It offered
juice to other neighboring media organizations as well, but there were no other takers.
Reviewing what happened in San Francisco, businesses might
reconsider just how vulnerable they are. The chaos in the Bay was all triggered when one
worker at a San Mateo substation renovation touched a pipe to an ungrounded line.
Emergency breakers shut down the entire peninsula to keep the entire grid from frying.