Power outages the latest test of Calif. CUs’ disaster preparedness

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Credit unions with a presence in Northern California had to think on their feet as they dealt with recent widespread power outages in the region.

Pacific Gas & Electric, which serves more than 5 million electric customers in Northern California, said extreme fire danger from hot, dry weather and Santa Ana wind conditions forced it to implement its “Public Safety Power Shutoff” policy last week. About 700,000 customers – representing approximately 2 million consumers, according to some reports – lost power between Oct. 8 and Oct. 13.

The outages were the latest hiccup for a region where credit unions are already well-versed in disaster preparedness, having dealt with wildfires for the last several years.

Despite losing power, two CUs in the region were still largely able to keep their branches operational.

For $7 billion-asset Patelco Credit Union in Pleasanton, the timing was fortuitous – when word came down that the CU’s service area would be subject to outages, officials at the Pleasanton-based institution were already holding a disaster-planning session.

Instead of discussing a theoretical earthquake or wildfire, Erik Welch, VP of operations, said the conversation quickly turned to responding proactively to what already was expected to be a wide-ranging and long-lasting power outage. The utility company warned the shutoff could last for several days, because a visual inspection is required prior to restoring electricity to lines, and that inspection cannot take place until after the weather event has ended.

“PG&E had posted website notifications and reached out to local news media,” Welch said, noting last week’s event was the first large-scale safety outage he is aware of. “But it was not clear in which city the outages would start or the time.”

Making matters worse, said Welch, the maps on the PG&E website were “not easy to read,” which made it difficult to anticipate where the outages would hit. In most cases, the credit union found out about a city or an area being without electricity after it the utility company cut the juice.

“We didn’t want the members reaching out to us, our goal was to reach out to them in advance,” Welch said. “We also looked at ways to leverage social media. We used Twitter and Facebook to communicate with members.”

The credit union also distributed an e-mail to its members on Oct. 8 with tips on how to deal with a prolonged electrical outage, including having a full tank of gas, fully charged cell phones and backup chargers, cash on hand, and knowing how to open a garage door manually.

Patelco managed to escape a power outage at one of its branches until Oct. 9, when the branch in Lafayette, Calif., saw the lights go out late in the day. Welch said none of the bank branches located in Lafayette were even open that day, in part because of a fire in nearby Moraga.

Since the Lafayette branch did not have a backup generator, Patelco officials were forced to shut their doors once the electricity was shut off.

Redwood CU in Santa Rosa also experienced outages on Oct. 9, losing power at four branches, but was able to stay operational in all of those facilities due to backup generators.

Andy Ramos, senior vice president of member experience, said the $4.6 billion-asset CU’s back office location in Napa, Calif., was impacted by the outages. The 20 employees on-site were temporarily able to work from unaffected RCU locations until power was restored, he said.

According to Ramos, the CU and its staff received no special communication from PG&E, but its incident response team took information provided by the utility company and created an action plan to limit interruptions on service. Several local cities also sent out emails to the community with general tips and guidelines, and maps of the planned outage areas.

“Our staff regularly monitored news and social media for updated information and shared updates with our incident response team,” Ramos said, adding the staff also
kept an eye out for news on when power would be restored. Electricity ultimately returned on Oct. 11.

ATM issues

Along with outages at the branch, Patelco also had to deal with losing power at two off-site ATMs. Welch explained that the credit union has protocols in place to reboot those machines remotely in power failure situations.

“We could tell when power was restored and our IT people rebooted them,” he said. “Knowing we had the shutoffs coming, we did extra deliveries to ATMs in the areas. We anticipated higher demand for cash, and all ATMs stayed in service. Many members took advantage of mobile deposit and mobile banking, which stayed in service the entire time.”

Redwood’s ATMs remained functional throughout the outages, and no special assistance was needed once power was restored.

“The cutover from generator power to main building power at the affected branches was done after business hours so as not to interrupt member service,” Ramos said.

PG&E restored power to most of its Northern California customers by Oct. 13, with the exception of some remote areas near the California-Oregon border.

Even with the power back on, the fallout is far from over. PG&E now faces sanctions from regulators over its actions and the outages are estimated to have cost the state’s economy more than $2 billion. And there could be more to come: a representative for the utility said more frequent blackouts could be required as a result of increasingly volatile weather due to climate change. Outages, according to one report, could be the “new normal.”

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