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Outage or outrage?

SNFs await blackout exemption ruling

THE CALIFORNIA ASSOCIATION OF HEALTH Facilities (CAHF) has filed a petition with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) requesting that the state's skilled nursing facilities be classified as "essential customers" exempt from rotating power outages or rolling blackouts.

CPUC is scheduled to make a final decision on or before Aug. 2. Outages that occur in the meantime will leave some nursing homes without power for essential equipment.

According to Betsy Hite, a CAHF spokesperson, the association filed April 23 with CPUC requesting the exemption. CAHF had expected a favorable ailing by May 14.

"We asked CPUC to ask the utilities--Edison and PG&E--whether or not it was doable to exempt us," says Hite. "We gave them the physical addresses of all 1,300-plus nursing homes. PG&E and Edison both came back and said yes, it is doable and it will not interfere with the 40-percent load requirement. Why CPUC hasn't done it is just unconscionable to us."

But California's skilled nursing facilities will have to wait in line with other businesses filing for exemption.

"The nursing facilities are going to be included in a process where everybody else is allowed to apply," says Laura Martin, a senior utilities engineer with CPUC. "We have to keep 40 percent of the [electrical] load available for rotating outages. Including all skilled nursing facilities might decrease the load below 40 percent. That's one thing that has to be known before the Commission can act on that."

Of respirators and roller coasters

Included on CPUC's essential-customer list are agencies providing fire, police, and prison services; hospitals; and communications and broadcasting facilities. Applicants for exemption must demonstrate that power outages would pose immediate danger to public health and safety beyond economic harm or inconvenience. Other entities applying for exemption include amusement parks and sports stadiums.

"We are not an amusement park," says Hite. "We have respirators, ventilators, IV drip systems, oxygen. There's potential loss of life here. People can survive just fine without a roller-coaster ride for a few hours--but that doesn't work for a respirator."

California law requires all skilled nursing facilities to have backup generators, but these primarily are intended to keep call systems and feeding tubes in operation. Most generators are considered inadequate to power elevators, air-conditioning, room lights, and complex life-support equipment. The intense California heat alone is a threat to the lives of frail elders left without air-conditioning.

Under California's Rotating Outage Program, utility companies will be ordered to reduce the electrical current when operating reserves of electricity fall below 1.5 to 2.0 percent. Predetermined "blocks" will then be blacked out for approximately 60 to 90 minutes. California Gov. Gray Davis has announced a three-tiered warning system in which the first warning will come two days prior to an outage; the second warning, one day before; the third, one hour before the blackout.
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Publication:Contemporary Long Term Care
Date:Jul 1, 2001
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