By Marc Carson, KM6NHH
My ham radio page with links and tools at https://www.friendlyskies.net/radio/
About the Author
Introduction: About this Writeup and the PSPS Event
Ham Radio Tips for a Power Outage
Info You may Want During a Power Outage
Timeline of Events
Marc Carson is a ham radio operator and business owner who lives in Ukiah, California. Marc has run a successful web design business (Marc Carson Web Design) since the early 2000s and built a second business (Marc Carson Coaching) on his experiences in offering technology training to groups of clients.
Marc and his wife Megan have three children and enjoy trips to the beach, reading books together, and day hikes in the nearby forests.
Marc became a ham radio operator in November, 2017, two years before this document was published. Since joining the ham community, Marc has volunteered in community events and published several online resources for ham radio operators. This includes the publication of COMMS standards for personal emergency communications preparedness.
Marc wrote this account after publishing a shorter version for Reddit's Amateur Radio community and finding it well received. Marc has since been invited to share his experiences with ham radio clubs in the United States.
In October 2019 power to our county, city, and home was lost (no commercial power to our residence) for just under 4 days, from the evening of Saturday, October 26 to the afternoon of Wednesday, October 30. This was a "PSPS" or Public Safety Power Shutoff" event, in which power distributor PG&E cut off power to multiple counties during an extreme weather event (like hurricane-force winds, low humidity, and high-enough temperatures).
The thinking by those who ordered this activity is that cutting off the electricity would mean lower risk of starting fires during dangerous situations.
About three million Californians (yes, you read that right!) then had their power cut off during the PSPS as a preventative measure.
If you are interested in the circumstances behind this event, I highly recommend reading the Wikipedia page on the 2019 California Power Shutoffs for more information.
Some people here in Mendocino County were down for even longer than we were. I really feel for them, especially those with businesses that depend on electricity and internet access, as does mine. It feels amazing to have lights and computers working again.
During this outage we had very good connectivity to ham radio repeaters (intermediate radios, usually on hilltops or mountain tops which could connect radio operator over long distances) with backup power. A huge thanks to the repeater operators who traveled to these sites to refresh the backup resources.
Ham radio was an incredibly valuable asset and this was reaffirmed again and again. During this power outage there were several wildfire events that directly threatened life and property.
I was fortunately very well prepared in the ham radio arena. I am something of a collector of HTs-as-gadgets (HT stands for "Handheld Transceiver, a small walkie-talkie size radio that can both receive and transmit). I laughed when I realized I could have probably made it through this outage just by switching HTs whenever a battery died.
I also have a toolbox "mobile rig", which is a more powerful transceiver that I fit into a 16 inch toolbox. It looks a little bit like a car stereo, and with it I have packed away two 7ah SLABs (Sealed Lead Acid Battery). I used this radio to help me communicate from the Russian Gulch on the Mendocino coast during the 2018 Mendocino Coast 50K race, and if you've ever tried to operate from a "gulch" before, you'll understand why it was very helpful. A handheld radio just could not get a usable signal out from such a location.
Before the power cutoff occurred, I thought that I might get fancy and get on HF (using a more powerful radio to talk at long distances with a very long antenna), work satellites using a special "yagi" antenna, or things like that. However, in actual experience I found the thought of these things draining because I had so much more to think about than usual. It felt like a lot just to get through the day with a minimum of hassle.
In the end I stuck to the radio technology that I knew best: I do a lot of hiking and walking with my HTs and I am comfortable using them in just about any circumstance. I've put over 1,000 miles on my ham radios out in the woods and rural roads, and I know the menus and features on these HTs backward and forward. If I'm lost, I know where to go (usually the top of the nearest hill) and which frequencies to use to get help. I have learned to look at the terrain around me and guess what kind of changes to my radio operation techniques I'll need to make in order to increase my chances of being heard.
Most of the time during the outage I carried around my "lucky" radio, a Baofeng UV-5R+ Plus that was my first ever handheld, with a spare battery that fits into the coin pocket on my jeans. This radio served me very well once again and I have no complaints. I have learned to use every little feature on the radio to get maximum benefit out of it.
I am still frustrated that spare batteries aren't cheap for some of my higher-quality Yaesu handhelds like the FT-65R, which has some features I appreciate (example: great squelch tail elimination), and I didn't end up carrying them around that much. I have Baofeng accessories and batteries in my home, office, and car because they're so readily available and also generally reliable enough for my needs.
In case you were wondering: Ham radio works well during emergencies, it's great in fact, and you can provide material assistance to groups and individuals during troubling events. No question.
Here are some things you can do with your ham radio during these kinds of events:
Alert friends to reliable information heard over the air
Pass welfare messages.
Get a variety of different types of info (see below)
I heard from people who were down to ham radio and that was it. No cell phone, no internet, no generator. That's a lifeline, INCLUDING for things like brief chit-chat just to feel normal for a while.
Keep a notebook and a pen / pencil and log your comms at least in a basic way.
Be ready to write down phone numbers and messages.
Tell your friends what you can do. Ask if they need messages sent.
ID, say where you are, your first name, and that you're listening.
People want to know that there are people from your area on the air.
Ask a question if you have one. Chances are, others are wondering.
Share official information if you have it and others may not.
My example: I received a text that linked to a website. First time, didn't wait for it to load. Second time, I did. Then I offered to read it out on the air. Was quickly taken up on that. Then I was asked to be on air during that night's net to read it at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Ask technical questions if you have them. My extension cord story. It worked OK when we might have powered it off.
Share a brief tip if you have one.
Hi, this is KM6NHH and I just wanted to share that Costco lines are indeed super low right now, with next to no wait time if you're willing to make the trip. (One ham drove down from 2h north and made it by midnight, with no wait!)
Generators should have their oil changed every 50 hours.
Yes, that may mean 2-3 times a week if you are running full-time.
People were grateful to hear that, because what if my generator dies?
They are less likely among hams than among friends at the park, I found. Hams are pretty sensitive to rumor and helpful.
If you need to share, it can help to say, "this may be a rumor, so can anyone confirm? This is third-hand information." Give an idea as to the quality and source of the info.
If you hear a rumor, don't take people to task immediately, just clarify or ask clarifying questions, maybe suggest a way or offer to get in touch with a relevant agency.
Helping new or inexperienced hams.
You may hear people ID with just their call sign, because they think that's how you ask for help. They may then not get a response, think their radio isn't working, and turn it off.
Ask them for a report at their location, and share any needs / wants
Give them a signal report.
To friends who are non-hams, who are listening:
Let them know there is a net schedule.
Let them know there are often bursts of activity, even after long periods of silence.
Identify your backup ham radios. Test them out ASAP. I heard some signal checks on "backup radios" that sounded terrible, with the voice sounding extremely muffled or very low signal levels.
The following are some of the questions you may wish to ask on your local ham radio repeater or simplex net during an emergency (as long as you are not interrupting other emergency traffic):
What's the latest official estimate on power restoration?
How can I get official updates? Where do I tune in?
How far do I need to travel to get to a place that has power?
What roads are open / closed? In which directions?
Where can I get gas?
Do they take credit cards? If so, which kind? Visa? Mastercard?
Do they take debit cards? If so, which kind?
Do I need a store card, e.g. a Costco card, or will employees swipe theirs on my behalf?
When are they open?
Do they have propane too?
How long are the lines?
Where can I shop?
When are they open?
What are conditions like there? Crowded? Shelves empty? Lights on?
Do they take cards; if so what kind, etc.
Are there any other stores nearby?
Where can I get internet access?
Is there public Wi-Fi?
Where can I charge my devices?
Is anybody monitoring things at (disaster area)?
What can you tell me? (Open question)
How are my friends?
How is my family?
The following is a timeline of events during the outage, including information on various aspects that need to be considered if you are facing an extended power outage.
We were warned that the power would be turned off in the late afternoon on Saturday. As soon as noon came around, I turned on my handheld ham radio and typed in 003, the channel where I have the frequency for our county-wide repeater stored. I also turned on my scanner, a brand new, used (ha), RadioShack Pro-92 which I had just programmed the week before. This scanner covers 5 ham radio bands, representing wavelengths from 10 meters to 33 centimeters. I have also programmed in local airport traffic, commercial jet traffic (jets headed to Oakland airport), law enforcement, fire, and other emergency responder channels, FRS / GMRS walkie talkie channels, and more.
A pattern started to emerge: Most of what I heard on the emergency services frequencies was irrelevant to my personal circumstances, except as a curiosity. It was a different story with the county-wide repeater, though. I immediately started hearing reports about outages here and there, and wondered when our power would be cut.
Just prior to 6 p.m., word was passed on that the Cahto peak repeater near Laytonville went down. This immediately cut off lots of hams from our county-wide system.
Len WA6KLK got on the air to let us know that this was expected, as the repeater currently has no backup power (post-outage, apparently some hams are going to remedy this--thank you for your hard work).
Still, even though that repeater outage was expected, it made me wonder just how much we'd have to use simplex radio-to-radio communications without repeaters. It later turned out that none of the other repeaters I used went down, thanks to well-prepared and kind operators who maintained them during the outage.
Len WA6KLK, a ham radio and CAL FIRE veteran, was active on the Countywide repeater on Laughlin ridge throughout the evening, telling us what to expect.
The PSPS started at 7:06 p.m. at our house, earlier for others. This was about an hour later for us than stated by the utility company PG&E. My wife and I groaned a bit and started to talk about planning for dinner, the kids, bedtime, and so on.
My first thoughts were pretty optimistic overall: Well, it's just a power outage. I've been through these before. Growing up in the Seattle area, my family lost power to our home for about a week during the Inauguration Day Storm of January, 1993. My memories of that event had mostly faded, and I remembered nothing so much as the excitement and variety of "action"--helping dad run the new generator during a rain storm, imagining that I was in the middle of a war zone, and so on. As a kid you can practically get high off of that incidental entertainment, and the memories seem to get rosier every passing year.
Soon though, my wife asked a question that I hadn't given much thought:
"What if there IS a fire? Isn't that what this is all about, after all, the fire weather conditions? Are we prepared for that?"
Sunday morning passed quietly; I was surprised to hear that church would be cancelled, thinking "we must be more resilient than that." However, I have to admit I didn't feel at all like going to church, and in retrospect I probably used my time better just staying home and continuing to prepare and monitor the airwaves.
That afternoon, the Burris Fire ignited just north of us, near Potter Valley. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. This fire was within 5 miles of our home and could easily impact our community and burn our house down if it spread. It was directly threatening the community of Potter Valley and I have friends who moved there after having property destroyed last year in Lake County. What a stressful time for them. And for all of us.
I started hearing from hams who lived near the fire. Things like, "I'm driving up to the top of the hill to monitor the fire" and "I'm getting out fire hoses" and "I'm putting notes to Sheriff's deputies on our gate." I'm sure some of these messages were sent in hopes that ham radio friends would remember and send word to authorities if we didn't hear back later. I can just imagine the stress.
I heard the deputies later inform dispatch that they could not get past the gates in question and were turning around. They called out addresses of homes as they notified residences. I could hear the High-Low evacuation sirens in the background of these calls. The stress of being told to evacuate must be awful.
I had also started calling friends to share fire news and let them know they were under evacuation warning. I hesitated a bit, but then decided that I'd personally rather have someone get in touch than possibly miss out when my life or property might be on the line.
In these communications, it was a great help to have near-constant access on demand to hams who were sitting on hilltops observing the fire activity.
I have a friend who I literally woke up from a nap, to tell them that there was a fire headed toward their house, with only 3-5 miles left. The initial alert helped them get ready, and then I called them every half hour with updates from hams in their neighborhood who were sitting on top of hills watching the fire. They were then about ready to evacuate and flee to another city, and we were able to get them information that helped them calm down and make smarter decisions as the information and weather changed. This was a huge application of ham radio that directly helps people in emergencies.
Suddenly thinking more about fires, I started planning for potential evacuation. I couldn't remember where I stored the information I prepared last time, but anyway I didn't print it out! That was a mistake. I had figured I'd have computer access; we always had that in the past, even during fire season.
I heard from a ham that you could watch the fire tankers on the Flight Radar 24 website. My internet wasn't fast enough to do this, now that the cell tower was either running off satellite or on reduced bandwidth. In fact I would be lucky to get a basic image search to work well.
I was frustrated to find TERRIBLE evacuation prep information online via my cell phone. Much of what I found were Pinterest-style memes. For example: Preparation to leave in 5 minutes that doesn't include things like medications. What else were they leaving out?
Once I put this information together in my journal, I had to reflect: Most of what I wrote would now be easy--I was indeed well enough prepared to save myself a lot of trouble and rushing around. We had just about everything we'd need to either stay or go, and ride out an extended power outage as well.
Just a year prior, my wife and I had received an evacuation "warning," meaning "prepare to evacuate." I spent hours moving equipment out of my home office and helping my wife load up the car. We had the car turned around in the driveway, facing out, with all doors unlocked, just waiting for the word to evacuate. Eventually darkness fell, and with it additional uncertainty. Should we sleep? How could we? In the end, the warning was lifted but I will never forget the feelings of that day.
For morale purposes, I drew a little trophy in my journal on this day. I gave myself an "I was prepared" award. At least--I was prepared enough that I had most of what I needed and even in the worst case was able to preparea additionally for other emergencies. Nobody else was handing awards out, so I might as well. After all, I was prepared enough that I could spend time just listening to updates and calling my friends to help them prepare.
Some good timing also combined with the preparation: I had just bought my wife and I new phones, so we both had phones with a great battery life, using up about 25% of the battery during a full day. Had this PSPS outage come just a month earlier, we joked, we would have been incredibly frustrated. Her phone was randomly shutting itself down due to battery age, and mine needed to be charged about 3x daily.
In the daily hustle it's easy to procrastinate getting something like a new phone, especially when that means setting the thing up again. Even restoring to a new phone from backups is not an easy process, and it takes months for the phone to stop alerting you to things like new features you might like, and so on.
We also had the new generator, solar panels (if I wanted to go to the trouble of setting them up--they were still in the box and I hadn't yet acquired a battery & inverter), and extra batteries of all types like crazy. On top of that we had ham radios, flashlights, tools, and more.
On top of that, I had just given myself my weekly haircut on Saturday morning, including a full trim of my beard. We had gassed up the car just in case.
And now the cellular internet was at least working. We could make phone calls and send text. And the refrigerator ran off the generator without melting the extension cord after all.
...and with some luck maybe Comcast internet would even work?
So that all felt really, really good.
On Sunday afternoon, I started hearing a new kind of call on the repeater: "Thank you for all the updates." This was now a key source of information for people across the county.
"We just really appreciate all of the information and tips more than you can know."
We also found out that some ATMs were working. We got news on gas stations (most closed, a few open), stores (same--just a few big grocers and Costco), and a city call center had been opened up.
Even with all of that great news, I started noticing that I was more irritable than usual. Little things that didn't bother me before were now causing some stress and irritation.
For example, I felt it was a little wasteful to use my cell phone battery for internet access while waiting around, but that now made waiting around more stressful. Little factors like that seemed to add up.
We received word on Sunday that the power could come back on as soon as Monday. This was already very welcome news. Others cautioned us that it might not be on for very long, just a few hours to charge things up. OK--that would feel great regardless.
We also started hearing about 2-hour-long lines at gas stations. A lot of people were sitting in cars to warm up, charge their phones, and listen to the radio. All of this required gas.
And things were getting cold. Saturday's wind event ushered in much colder weather. Evenings would no longer be in the 60 degree range. Sunday a.m. had dipped down into the 30s.
We quickly learned that it was best to go outside to warm ourselves during the day--it was much too cold inside. We sat in camp chairs, listened to the radio, and read books and comics.
For the first time during this event, at the end of Sunday, something very troubling happened. My stress levels went very high and I felt my mood drop instantly. I recognized the symptoms--thoughts that nothing would turn out well, an intensely restless feeling, and "instant kitchen teleportation"--that is, I'd suddenly find myself in the kitchen, stress eaating.
Fortunately, I had been through this before, in events like severe illness, losing family members, and other events of severe anxiety. And I was lucky enough to have brought some lessons forward from all of that.
In response to this episode, I started to force myself to vent about annoying things into my journal. I would write and vent as long as it took to eventually come around to a plan: What I would do, and when. This provided near-immediate improvement in mood, though I could tell I was also just tired. There was no point in sitting on the cold leather couch for a while before bed just to surf the non-existent internet and watch non-existent TV, so I went directly to bed and read for a while.
In retrospect, I remembered that laying down decreases the physical strain on your nervous system as well, so this was probably a really good idea all around.
As of Day 3, I was glued to the local news (KZYX, 91.5 local NPR, news, and eclectic music station) every hour. I also continued monitoring and sharing fire news.
In my journal, I recorded, "This is starting to get old." Why? Here are some examples:
Flashlights kind of suck. Cold white light, thrown in any direction, with most of the room still cast in shadow.
Not having heating sucks. Exercise was mandatory just to warm up my body in the morning.
My schedule was all thrown off. I remember my wife asked me "what are we doing today?" I couldn't help but look at her like she was from Mars. "I guess we need a plan? I have no idea," I responded.
Not knowing what support is available sucks. Can I even get internet somewhere nearby? If I leave now, will there be enough gas in 2 hours when I finally pull up at the pump?
Slow internet sucks. I almost bought the same product twice because I lost my connection to the website and didn't realize the transaction went through.
Not knowing what my business customers will expect sucks. Some people will email you just so they look like they are on the ball, which puts a lot of pressure on you to respond, when in fact it's no big deal and they're just trying to keep busy at work.
Missing a scheduled radio update sucks. Was that the one where we find out when the power's coming back on? Ugh.
Not knowing if my family will be OK sucks.
Not having any kind of definite ETA on the power restoration sucks.
Starting to wear your ankle-high socks in a cold house because you can't do laundry and don't feel like searching for longer socks sucks.
During this time I started thinking about the idea of composure, and its relevance to the situation.
I had recently started playing a role-playing game with my kids in which Composure is a very important attribute of one's player character. If your Composure points go too low, you start to lose control and your fate becomes more and more unpredictable. Faced with a difficult adversary, your composure could easily start to diminish and cost you the game. The game emphasizes creative problem-solving using one's "powers" to prevent crucial factors from diminishing.
While it was amusing to read accounts of super-villains losing their composure and running off screaming into the night as the superhero won yet again, this kind of storytelling is based on authentic human experience. Any one of us is at some risk of losing composure, when faced with new and difficult experiences. And losing composure is never an enjoyable event. One could also argue that it's contagious. The last thing I'd want to do is contribute to a sense of unease in my family.
I thought it would be a good idea to consider my level of composure during this PSPS event: How was it? How could I keep it from dropping to critical levels?
First, I knew I needed to find ways to go about my normal constructive work. I needed to maintain my business composure and stay active. I continued blocking out daily time for work and treated it as normal work time, just to keep stress levels low. During that time I began to compose emails in handwriting, in my journal, so I could get ahead of any problems and avoid wasting time I may need to spend at a local wi-fi access point.
I also decided to keep, rather than postpone, a coaching phone call with a business client. I planned things out ahead of time so that even if the call happened in the dark, things would work out OK.
This kind of effort helped me maintain my composure, and even though every new day seemed to bring composure-related decisions, I quickly found that being circumspect about these decisions made me feel much better about "making it" through an extended power outage event.
In the broader community, I was starting to hear police reports of irritated and annoyed people causing problems--the kind of interaction that results from dwindling composure.
On day 3 I also noticed a sort of "ergonomic groove" forming. I had developed a good feeling for the equipment I'd need to carry when moving between locations. I had a general daily and hourly routine down. I knew the radio frequencies that seemed most valuable. Also, if no one was on FRS / GMRS channels at this point, they probably would never be.
This ergonomic shift led to a lower risk of discomfort in some ways (change brings stress), and a higher risk of continued discomfort in other ways (potentially delayed and rising change-related stress due to anything I was putting off for later).
I found it important to start asking: What's making me uncomfortable? And what can I do about it?
On Monday afternon, the Willits East Side Fire started, about a 30 minute drive north of my location, but close to many local ham radio operators. I emailed a friend who lived in the area to tell him I hoped he was safe. I knew he had satellite internet, but it turned out that he hadn't yet heard about the fire and was grateful for the warning. Sometimes internet access can make you think you will automatically be alerted to the important things going on around you, when in fact even Facebook has publicly stated that they will not show you updates from friends or local agencies, because they don't want to drown you in information. For this reason I think it's important to know that some emergency information tools are more relevant-information-selective and thus work better than others in emergencies--radio being a great example.
The East Side Fire was contained within hours but caused a lot of local concern. You never seem to hear how these fires start until much later, so you can start to wonder--could that happen in my neighborhood?
By the end of the afternoon, no power had been restored, even thought we had been told it would be turned back on so that we could charge our devices and get ready for the next outage. We had no idea that in fact the power wouldn't be turned on for another two days.
At 8 p.m. I received an update: The power will be down tomorrow too, with the "same footprint," meaning: Nothing has changed and nothing will change--the power will remain off.
The bedtime routine was in a groove, too. Watch a bit of a movie on the tablet with the kids. Plug in the biggest bluetooth speaker we have, so that there's a bit more of that "plugged-in" feeling from the richer audio.
Then get the kids to bed--my oldest son loves to sleep in a hammock-- and head to bed myself. Just before falling asleep I make a quick plan for the next day, and told myself things would work out alright, so that I could sleep as peacefully as possible. This is a trick I learned when dealing with some really difficult periods in life previously.
Hourly news updates reported that the outage would continue Tuesday and Wednesday, perhaps even into Thursday.
I decided to get out on a walk. It felt good. But somehow different.
While things were generally calm, Many people were out walking, which was a bit of a surprise. I walked past two adolescents who seemed pretty chatty, and one of them saw my radio (I had just been listening to an update over the air).
"Hey bro, you got comms???"
What an awkward question! But had to admit I remembered talking like that when I was younger. Plus these guys were bored out of their brains and I could tell they were just making conversation.
The two of them caught up and walked with me for a bit, asking questions. "Are you talking with people out there?" Yep. Heck, I can get a message out internationally from just this little handheld, if I need to, I told them.
(Keep in mind I also had a phone in my pocket, with internet access, but that didn't matter as much--people wanted to know about what happens if things get worse.)
"WHATTT!! F--- yeah! Hell yeah!" I had to smile at their over-excitement about anything that seemed like good news.
In fact, the WIN System repeater (Western Intertie Network) up on the mountain had backup power and I myself have talked to people from Hawaii to Ireland on the WIN System in the past. Having used the system I was pretty comfortable asking for help or even just simple information if I needed it.
I tempered my response a bit, focusing on general amateur radio capabilities, knowing that some people think ham radio operators wish they were emergency responders, like pretend cops or something (I appreciate what the police do, but no thanks; I don't really want to become a cop).
"We're not really handling tons of emergency messages, but we can pass along personal messages to family and friends, things like that." Personally, I don't want people to think that I think I'm an emergency responder or anything even close. I've been around people who think everything is an emergency, just because that's their general emotional state.
But imagine if I had told these guys we even have our own ham radio satellites! Maybe next time.
At the end of the day we started hearing that the power may be coming on tomorrow evening. A report from the Sheriff was sent out to thousands of cell phones. The report was a text message which linked to a web page, and the web page was taking forever to load. That was really frustrating.
At first, I stopped trying to load the page, but then I thought better of it. How many others would give up too? And what if the information was really important? What if it was actually really good news?
I tapped on the link again and waited until the web page loaded. And wow, what a message.
The website update contained comprehensive power restoration planning information, naming specific communities and the order in which they would be restored to full electric power.
And there was a detailed timeline attached.
My mouth hung open. I picked up my radio. "This is KM6NHH. I just received a very detailed report from the Sheriff on the outage. Would anyone like me to read this report? It is only accessible via internet as yet and takes a long time to load, so I thought I would offer."
I knew I'd want someone else to do this, if they had an update which I hadn't received.
"YES! PLEASE GO AHEAD," came a quick reply from one of our long-time ham radio community members.
I read out the most relevant three paragraphs, breaking between each paragraph (pausing in case there was other traffic on the repeater, and because I had heard other operators do the same, possibly to take good care of their radios).
On one break I heard a frustrated "KEEP GOING." Ha.
It was indeed big news.
If the report could be trusted--and it seemed very definite--our power would be turned on tomorrow (Wednesday) afternoon, and for others it might be turned on even earlier than that.
Len asked if I'd be willing to re-read the message during the Tuesday Tech Net (a net is like a meeting held on the radio) that evening at 7 o'clock, and then later at 8. I did so, and also noted that the the Tech Net was especially well attended. 41 radio operators checked in, 40 on emergency power.
As I recall, there's normally something like 10-15 check-ins on this net, and maybe 20 to 25 operators on a really high-traffic day.
Len also asked operators to share lessons learned during the outage. A lot of good advice was given. One example, from a ham who sells generators: Change your generator's oil every 50 hours.
Really? Wow. Imagine hearing that after running your brand new, very expensive generator for 72 hours.
"If that was a car engine, keep in mind you would have arrived in New York from California after driving for 24 hours," the operator said.
At the close of the net, someone remarked that it was pretty funny--the only operator who had their power restored at that point was also the one with the most solar gear and solar backup power experience. Kind of ironic.
On Tuesday night, before bed, I watched a favorite superhero movie with the boys and felt very good about our chances for the next day. It felt like the good news was really being accepted by my system. Maybe it was some kind of intuition, but it felt great.
Still, waking up on Wednesday without power had the same dulling effect as always.
I have to make another role-playing game analogy: For every turn you took in this game, it was as if the Game Master took away one morale point. And it was up to you to earn that back.
I found myself deepening my organization. OK, the tool bag goes here while I'm working; the binder goes there so I don't lose it. Let's clean this table.
And heck, let's even surprise Megan by getting all of the electronics out of the kitchen eating area.
I was also developing a habit of setting watch alarms to remind me about things. Examples are things like tuning into radio stations and starting / stopping the generator.
I was still not used to the sound of the generator and found it pretty annoying. So did my kids. "Aw, not the generator again. I hate that thing," one of them said.
"I feel like I'm about to lose it," said multiple friends on Facebook.
I still thought it was likely that power would come back on very soon. But whatever good news I heard about power restoration, I just thought, "whatever". I was now mentally prepared for another 4-5 days of this. It would suck, but I knew I could do it.
At 2 p.m., Megan shouted from inside the house, "the power's back on!"
Whaaat! I ran inside the house, flipping on lights. Just to feel good again, I ran over to the bathroom and flipped those lights on. No more dark bathrooms!
Kind of excited, and not hearing anything on the radio, I called out on the county-wide repeater. "This is KM6NHH, just letting people know, our power has come back on in West Ukiah."
A noisy reply came back. "This is Mike KM6OTE--Did I hear that right? Did you say your power is back on in Ukiah?" Mike would normally be using the Cahto Peak repeater, which had no backup power, so he was not having the greatest time trying to use the Laughlin Peak repeater which is farther away.
"Affirmative Mike, power restored. Repeat, power is restored."
"That's good to hear, because I know you guys need to be energized before we can get our power again over here on the coast."
Sure enough, Mike's power was restored the next morning.
That was a big lesson learned for me: Information helps people maintain hope. And most people just want a reason to hope, so they tune in.
People who can't tune in may, unfortunately, miss out on that extra bit of hope. I thought about other friends I wished I had helped purchase ham radios, even if just for listening, before the outage hit.
In the meantime, there was much to do. We had no idea if the power would go off again soon.
Megan asked if we should take it easy on using appliances just to ease the strain on the grid? I had no idea, but I told her I thought that most people probably wouldn't start doing laundry this fast, and the activity would start ramping up a bit later. So in the meantime, let's get our important electrical chores taken care of just in case the power is cut later.
I had to catch myself rushing around several times. I was still recovering from the flu, and I could tell I was burning up energy that I didn't really have. My cough started to come back, but I was feeling very energetic overall, likely from the boost of positive events.
We went to a nearby trunk-or-treat that evening and the kids had a blast. The way it worked was, you went from car to car and then started over again, so it only stopped when people ran out of candy.
As a result, these kids--maybe 50 kids total--each went home with what looked like about $20 worth of Halloween candy. Not bad!
And I should mention my costume: I dressed as a slightly-overdone rural ham radio operator, partly because I wanted an excuse to keep the radio on and listen to local ham radio traffic.
Several of my friends told me they wished they had got that darn ham radio up and going, because it would have really been useful. I could only agree with them. In fact, I had to admit that even I underestimated just how useful it would be.
Just in time for Halloween, we started our first day with the power back on. The holiday energy seemed to combine with the power-back-on energy and our spirits were really high. I had about five or six halloween movies I wanted to watch, movies I would have been watching during the prior week had the power not been cut.
I started pulling flashlights and batteries out of random pockets, unpacked the tool bag, and generally moved random items from random places back to their normal places. It's strange how items start to migrate around the house during an outage. I felt bad for the way I had turned multiple areas into what resembled my own little workbench.
At the end of the day, I sad down and related my experiences on Reddit. The response was even better than anticipated.
We made it. And was "it" even a big deal? I guess so. At least, it seems that some people wanted to hear about it.
At one point, someone got on the air and said, "look, just listen to your scanner, stop sharing rumors on the air and stay away from fire sites." Immediately after, someone else said, "look, my house is right in the path of this fire--please, please keep sharing information if you have something to share. I am getting water hoses ready."
I know there is some controversy with things like this sometimes, but I can see both sides. Once rumors get started, the social information space can get really annoying fast. On the other hand though, if your house is in the path of a fire, maybe you'd rather just have all of the available information and then decide for yourself how much of it is trustworthy.
During the outage we lucky ones did have cell phone access with "LTE" data. (Many did not, and land lines even went down due to loss of power) What that "LTE" actually amounted to was cell + text + frustratingly slow internet data.
The actual internet speed felt like dialup, and was probably close to ISDN speeds. I was shocked at how many assets some of my email clients loaded via the net before they would even start listing email. I remember watching icons load one by one, thinking "surely these could have been cached on my phone somehow?"
Fortunately it so happened that I had posted a list of text-only and low-bandwidth sites on my own website a while back, and that ended up being a really useful resource.
And I should also mention that I am very grateful for those who worked to keep our cellular internet access going, no matter how slow it seemed.
By the way: If you run a business that depends on internet services and are at potential risk of power loss, I recommend looking into services that can send you alerts or communicate with you via text message. You may not be able to load your "My Account" or other needed resource page on every website, so every little text message you can get is helpful. There were lots and lots of timeouts experienced before things finally connected on the web.
I heard from some who had working cable internet through Comcast. They just connected their modem to the generator and kept it plugged into the coax. Mine did not work; the Wi-Fi access point came on but evidently my local Comcast resources had no backup power. This was practically shattering for morale at a personal level. More dialup speeds :D However, I did find out that there were public Wi-Fi access points in our community.
There was an interesting comms gap related to internet, by the way-- some of my friends with working satellite internet were not getting crucial local information. I was listening to fire updates via ham radio, and called one of those internet-on friends and told him I heard there was a fire within a few miles of his home, and he was shocked to hear about it. It's possible to be very plugged in and yet completely ignorant of the emergency right on your doorstep. There's also the fact that people were glued to Facebook for updates, and yet Facebook intentionally does not show you all updates from your local friends and resources. If you don't know about this, you could miss out on really important updates. This was really sad to watch.
During the previous PSPS event warning earlier that month, in which we didn't lose power at all, my wife and I made the decision to purchase a generator. We bought a 2000W/1600W inverter generator by AI Power from our local Costco. It was literally a "hey honey, I'm at Costco and there's this generator," phone call. I told her to go for it, slightly bummed that I didn't have time to research it too much, but I'm really glad we got a generator.
During the outage we ran the generator 2-3x daily for an hour for just the refrigerator/freezer, and fortunately it had enough power for that, so we didn't lose any food.
After running the fridge I put the generator into Eco-mode for our electronics, including ham radios. I was a bit annoyed to realize that all we had were 16-gauge extension cords though, and plan to pick up more appropriate cords in the future for those appliances. Having melted extension cords in the past, I was glad things worked out OK this time though.
My working rule for my home during the outage:
It took about 2 gallons of gas for 2 days
For 2 purposes
2x to 3x daily.
On gas cans: Some people with 5+ gallon cans were regretting it due to annoyance of lifting and carrying. That is hard on your joints! I saw people wrangling huge gas cans into and out of their vehicles, and I felt fortunate: I had a single 2 gallon can, given to us for use during the outage by my father-in-law.
I did wish I had more gas cans. It's a bit frustrating to make the trip to the station in the middle of the night and only come away with 2 gallons. Still, based on our light usage it didn't make a big difference.
Overall, ham radio was really amazing. So were ham radio operators.
First of all, a ham radio was good company, with friends being available directly. And second, it was like the internet but faster for certain information. "Where can I get gas with a credit card?" Answers came in seconds. "How can I avoid long gas lines?" Boom, instant information. "What's the latest on power restoration?" Instant news. And so on.
I can't guarantee they will be the same fast answers in your area, but I will say that when you network a bunch of people with radios, it can save a lot of trouble.
Quite a few times I heard people get on the air and say, "this is KJ6ABC, I just wanted to say I'm listening and very thankful for information I'm getting here that I'm not getting anywhere else. We don't have working phones or anything, just ham radios now."
Plus you'd pick up random helpful information just by listening. I helped my friend buy a ham radio a few months ago, just for listening purposes, and programmed it for him. I called him during the outage and he told me, "we're monitoring the ham channels more than the emergency response channels. There's actually information you can use on there."
Later, that same friend said, "I was doing some work around the house and my wife actually took the radio and said she wanted to listen to it when I wasn't able to." Tip: If you have a friend, they can listen without a license. Help them get a radio even just to listen to.
By the way--if you have a flashlight on that radio--yes, it's useful. Even better, it's connected to a gigantic battery in comparison to most flashlights. Even the terrible Yaesu FT-65 flashlight can do something. I have several Radioddity FRS radios with flashlights and FM radios and I handed those out to my kids as well.
Two days into the outage, a friend stopped by, curious to see how things were going with communications, since he had none. He's a funny guy and said he wanted to see the "command center". I have done some comms training locally and he attended one of those sessions. I had just purchased a second Radio Shack scanner the week previous, so I showed him how a $35 scanner off eBay could help me hear what's going on out there. Then I told him about HF, satellites, and the repeaters we have around the area. Even if I need to do simplex here, I've confirmed that works up to higher elevations at distances of 15-18 miles, and that's without connecting a handheld yagi.
On Tuesday night the normal Tech Net was held on our County- wide repeater. 40 out of 41 check-ins were running on emergency power. WA6KLK Len asked everyone to share lessons learned from the experience so far. There were a lot of really great tips shared on everything from radio to generators to other tech.
There was also a PG&E employee checking into the ham radio repeaters and he said he keeps a ham radio in his vehicle (some kind of older model issued to PG&E employees, I believe) and finds the local operators invaluable when he has questions about the vicinity in which he's working. For example, he asked us if we knew anything about a traffic slowdown (it turned out to be a collision) that was preventing him from making any headway on the freeway, things like that. He was getting answers, so I can see why he keeps the radio programmed and working.
Another important radio-related tip is that broadcast radio was really handy. Especially FM community radio. When fires directly impacted our area, they broadcast live updates every 30 minutes. When the fire impact was mitigated, they switched to every hour on the hour. Sometimes it was frustrating to realize I missed the hourly broadcast though, so I ended up setting alarms on my watch to remind me to tune in...I guess you never know what tech will end up being useful and why.
One thing I found very helpful was a binder I put together before the event with procedures written down: What to do with some warning (e.g. unplug sensitive equipment), what to do when the power goes out, what to do when it comes back on, and so on. I also put maintenance records for hardware here, like the generator. This binder saved a lot of stress-addled brain activity when the power actually did go out.
Hitting day 4 felt really frustrating. We had not done any laundry in 4 days and we're a family of five, so the laundry room was piling up. The weather had changed and the evenings, nights, and mornings were now dipping into the 30s. On top of that, we were starting to have to get creative with ideas, because the same old stuff was boring, especially for kids. Card games, Legos...nah. I'd rather just wander around talking about being bored!
I got on the radio and called out as soon as our power came on. Just to let people know that we, at least, were up and going with electricity again. I didn't realize how eagerly anticipated this news was, for people who didn't yet have power. It meant they could entertain a reasonable hope--help was on the way. That was another helpful lesson learned.
I didn't plan to get on HF during the outage, but I charged my CountyComm GP-5 SW SSB receiver beforehand and had the PL-600 and PL-390 SW receivers ready to go.
However, I found that at least for us, our order of interest in communications went something like this:
Any text message updates via Nixle
Local ham updates via repeater
Local FM community broadcast radio
Local emergency traffic via scanner
Anything heard from our friend (a neighbor) the PG&E guy
Family communications with family in other states via Facebook Messenger
Facebook group / page updates (our community has a PSPS page on Facebook)
Regional AM broadcast radio
National / International shortwave radio
In practice I found that I barely had time to tune into AM because we kept pretty busy and found that we really wanted news that was as directly relevant as possible.
In between those updates, it was nice to turn on some music. I happened to have a Getz/Gilberto album on an mp3 player, and playing that soft music in the house helped take the edge off the atmosphere.
Regarding solar, it so happens that I was about 30% of the way through our solar setup purchases when this outage hit, with just a higher-capacity battery and inverter left to buy. It would have been nice to have that finished up and set up, so it's on the list to complete now that the power is back on.
I talked to several people who had solar power, and one friend was off the grid during the outage and relatively unaffected, though from what I understand, he and others who are off-grid were affected by everyone else being affected--friends, stores, etc.
Make some friends in the local ham community. This makes it a lot easier to reach out. If you don't know anybody, it adds a bit of discomfort and you're not sure who to trust, or who people look up to for information of a certain kind, etc.
If you're an organized person, keep a log during an emergency. I used a bullet journal and time-stamped it every hour or two with an update of what was going on. This helped me make decisions and keep my sanity intact.
If you spot frustrated organized people around you, maybe they are feeling stressed because they don't have a plan. I noticed that a lot of my conversations with those kinds of people centered around helping them talk themselves around to putting a plan together. "Well, I might as well go to the store now..." and then they seemed to be a lot calmer.
Prior to the power outage, I thought it would probably be a lot like camping. However, in practice, the two are quite different:
You don't know how long you'll be "camping"
You don't really know what to expect at all, when it comes down to it
There might even be a fire that burns your house down
You are forced to camp, even if you'd rather to something else
You and the other people with whom you are camping are feeling generally more stressed than usual, not less
So yeah, that's not very much like recreational camping at all.
I found it useful to start planning for things to do early on. You can't expect to hang out by yourself or with your family all day just hunkered down. Somebody will start getting irritated, then it'll spread. It's not pretty.
Get out on a walk (LOTS of people were out on walks), get to the park (again, LOTS of people did this), or find an excuse to go see which stores are in operation.
I was amazed at the number of people on Facebook saying things like "my husband is starting to lose it...I just hope this ends soon." Seriously, plan for stuff to do, and do it.
I am pretty sure there are spouses and partners out there who are glad that ham radio gave their loved one something to do before they went crazy.
It also helps to identify a bag to use for hauling gear around when the power goes out. I traveled to visit family and was glad to have a 12" tool bag into which I dumped a couple of flashlights, USB chargers to share with family, a tablet, some tools, radios, and a couple of books.
Get battery-powered AM/FM radios that have speakers in them. The V-115 worked well for me, as did the HRD-737-style radio (mine's just AM/FM).
Order some AA and AAA batteries when they're available at a decent cost. These were hard to find locally during the outage. Everything but hearing aid batteries--gone.
It's nice to have a generator for recharging, as well as USB power banks, but with devices that run off alkaline cells, you do not have to wait an hour or two for a recharge. I can't emphasize enough how nice this was. You just load up those batteries and you're back up and going.
After the outage I started looking into lighting solutions. Most of the time our interior lighting was just "flashlight, pointing upward at ceiling."
I have since heard there are many solutions available, like remote-controlled LED lamps with dimmers, things like that. I ended up hopping on eBay and purchasing an 18-LED USB strip for a whopping $1.30, shipped. I ordered the "Warm White" color, and I have to say that thing turned out to be a very worthwhile purchase. The color is warm enough to feel more comforting than a typical flashlight, and it is easily powered off of a typical USB battery power bank.
You will never feel like you have too many flashlights and batteries during a power outage. Even the $1 lights you find at check-out stands are helpful in a completely blackened room where you can't see your hand in front of your face.
Keep a radio and/or spare batteries in your vehicle. At one point while visiting a relative, my battery died and I was halfway through the backup, and I was grateful to remember that I could just run out to the car for another battery if I needed more power.
A lot of people did not know that airplane mode would save their battery and allow their devices (phones + tablets) to charge faster.
It's crazy how impactful even this little bit of information can be when every drop of energy is valuable.
Scan and occasionally call out on FRS/GMRS channel 1. Some people have "home emergency alert"-branded radios that use channel 1 as a calling channel. If they are in your neighborhood and need help, you could be the only person who hears it. BTW it feels a lot less weird to call out "WAFK771, Channel 1, West Side of City Name, I am monitoring this channel for any emergency calls" so if you're thinking about getting that GMRS license even just for the call sign, go for it.
Get a real scanner if you haven't already. Even if just for the ham bands, these are useful. You can quickly lock out stations with data or nets you aren't interested in, and then your scanner will cruise through those other channels.
My 1990s tech RadioShack scanners will scan 25 channels per second and they are very conservative in their use of power. They even have pre-programmed frequency banks, so you can scan 5 different ham bands without even programming anything in.
Newer scanners are great too, but you don't have to pay more than a low-end ham radio to get a scanner that does its job well.
These notes were compiled from other ham radio operators’ experiences as shared on our local Tech Net.
With texting, if you have no voice service, but send a text, when you get into a better signal zone, the data will be sent.
Get on the metal building or trailer's side facing the tower if you know where there's a tower, and use that metal to reflect the cell signal.
2.5gal gas cans not 5gal. "No spill" brand seems to be highly recommended.
Remote-controlled, AAA powered LED lamps with dimmer options, which can be placed inside of light fixtures
Car jump-start charger battery packs, about $60 to $70.
Jump your car up to 20 times.
18000 MAh claimed capacity
May include compass, flashlight, power meter, etc.
In one case, testing needed to be done; repeater chit chat gets going. It was OK but a little frustrating.
Move conversations to another repeater where possible.
You can ask generator questions on the air; there were plenty of these. In our case we basically had a generator sales tech on hand.
Every 50 hours of use or once a year. 50h = 3000 mi = oil change.
People don't empty the gas for months at a time, and the carburetor gets filled up with gunk. So: Drain the fuel if storing more than 3-4 months.
Older scanners pick up CHP 42 MHz frequency which was useful for traffic information while some were traveling.
When an HT running AAs would run out of usable power, the same used batteries could then give 5-6 hours in a Radio Shack scanner before they were no longer good.
If you have friends or family in the area, consider purchasing an extra USB battery pack, something you can drop off or hand off to instantly help somebody out.
Open your mouth and ask people where resources are. I called the local radio station at one point and they were super helpful. You can often find public wi-fi, warm places to eat, and even equipment as needed. You just have to be willing to ask. We also had a local ham offering to loan out a working 2000W Honda generator. I thought that was pretty impressive.
Your family may be more worried about you than you are about you. Reach out to them and let them know how you are.
If the power goes out during the day, prepare for the night and morning by getting any blankets, scarves, socks, hats, or gloves ready. It can save a lot of annoyance just to know where these things are located.
Get some snacks like you're on a road trip or camping. On day 2 we realized we wished we had more of that kind of thing, because we were still used to preparing dinners with a stove and oven. Without the stove and oven working, your options can get really boring fast.
Make sure you have a way to heat water. And a way to keep it heated: A thermos, etc.
Plan for your fridge and freezer. When you'll run it, how many times a day, for how long. We ran ours 2x daily on average, and my wife did a great job planning meals around the use of the food we had in the fridge and freezer.
We heard a lot of people just threw things out like crazy. Some even said they lost close to $1000 in food. I'm not sure how that's possible, but some education and planning can prevent such a loss.
If you don't know much about preserving your food, keep in mind it WILL be tempting to just throw everything out and start afresh, whether or not that is actually necessary.
My wife did find that the end of the outage was a great excuse to go through the fridge and throw out some things we weren't using anyway, and genrerally just clean things up.
When you get a warning, go get gas in your car ASAP, and fill up your generator gas tanks. Don't be like everybody else who ends up waiting in long lines.
Be sure to unplug important devices. During a previous power restoration event last year, I lost a computer monitor when its EEPROM was wiped as power was restored. I learned my lesson! UNPLUG those devices or risk losing them.
Make hard drive backups if you use a computer. It's nice to be able to carry a hard drive around with your computer data more readily accessible in that way.
Anticipate higher stress. Know ahead of time what your moods and habits do when you are under elevated stress. Plan for ways to respond to this.
For example, I know that I need to get my thoughts and feelings out of my head ASAP in order to keep my mood up and feel productive. Keeping a log in a journal helped me do this. When I didn't do it, I could feel the stress slowly rising again.
If you have an exercise routine, do your best to stick to it.
Make sure to hydrate. My wife and I both noticed that we were not staying well hydrated like we normally would. So try to drink water often and avoid dehydration & its symptoms such as headaches, which can also cause stress to rise.
If you like comics, or your kids do, I recommend that you get on Amazon and order one of those huge bundles of random comic books. It was awesome when that brick of comics dropped on our doorstep. (Heck, I'm still reading them after the outage.)
Our shipments from Amazon were delayed by two days but it was glorious when they arrived. Fresh batteries, a siphon pump, whatever random stuff is needed--even having to wait it was worth it.
Load up on movies beforehand if possible. Put them on tablets and phones. Same with podcasts, audiobooks, and ebooks. If your library sponsors the "Hoopla" app or similar apps, you may be able to check out comics, audiobooks, TV shows, and movies.
If you have friends or family members who are "going crazy," it may be that they just need to watch some TV or a movie to feel normal again.
My mother-in-law enjoys watching TV and it helps her feel comfortable. I got out our tablet and put on a Columbo episode one day, and Seinfeld on the next day. She really enjoyed the break from boredom. My kids also somehow developed a quick interest in old TV, probably because it was an excuse to maintain their much-appreciated connection with electronics.
Part of the lesson here might be "well, don't get too connected with electronics," but I think a better lesson is: If it's an emergency, help people find comfort. I don't think there's anything naturally harmful about using an electronic device, and we limit our kids' screen time as part of a typical schedule. But emergencies may require more nuanced thinking about what you'll allow, in order to best take care of your family.
I hope these tips and experiences have been helpful to you. If you are at risk of extended power cutoff, now is the time to prepare! While you are at it, if you can help a friend or two you'll feel much better about your contributions during and after the outage.
Regarding ham radio: Hams are great--we have built something amazing in this global ham radio community. It works. It really does work and is very helpful during emergencies.
Keep up the good work, everyone.
Organized the information based on my initial short-form Reddit post. This is now much longer and better organized.
Added new information based on reviewing my logs and notes in Google Keep and my bullet journal.