Tech and Public Safety: Lessons From PG&E’s Blackout Blunder

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For the past week, Pacific Gas & Electric, California’s largest power utility, has intermittently cut power to millions of people in order to mitigate the risk of wildfires. The precautionary blackouts have wreaked havoc across the state, causing car collisions, medical scares, and shortages of backup generators and flashlights. Despite these foreseeable risks, PG&E struggled to keep its customers abreast of blackout developments — traffic lights went out without warning, nursing homes suffered sudden power losses, and in the midst of the chaos, the power company’s computer systems also went dark. 

While customers generally understood the need to impose blackouts to prevent fires, they were frustrated with PG&E’s poor communication. In a push notification era, why is PG&E still struggling to give its customers basic real-time information? 

Panic without a push notification: How PG&E can keep customers in the loop

Millions of customers were severely impacted by the power outages, and many of them were forced to rely on the radio and local news for schedule updates and power restoration timelines. PG&E’s website intermittently crashed throughout the blackouts, and even government agencies trying to get ahold of an agent were left on hold for hours at a time. 

The blackouts were dangerous and inconvenient for a large population of customers, and they were made even more so by the lack of information provided. Customers were unable to access updates on the blackout schedule or a map of affected areas, as these resources became inaccessible when the website went down due to heavier than expected traffic. But in today’s world, there are ample solutions to ensure such failures don’t happen. Here’s how PG&E can make small changes to help keep customers apprised of critical updates at scale: 

1. Create a comprehensive knowledge base of resources and FAQs 

PG&E developed its planned blackout response to wildfire risk factors last April, meaning it had ample time to put together basic resources for customers — such as blackout preparation checklists, advice on backup generators, and information on what people should do if they are medically dependent on a powered device. While PG&E does have ample information on its website, it could be more comprehensive and better organized (as a searchable database organized alphabetically by topic) so customers can find the information they need quickly during an emergency. Knowledgebase articles can also be distributed via email, text message, social media, push notification and local news outlets ahead of blackouts. This can mitigate much of the panic surrounding the unknown, and also creates redundancy in case other communication channels fail.

2. Augment Communication Channels with Chatbots

Brands can use push notifications and SMS, segmented by customer zip code, to send of-the-moment updates to customers. The airline industry, for instance, leverages this technology to inform travelers of delays. While PG&E has such a system in place to notify customers when their power is due to be shut off, reports say that these notifications were few and far between last week. And with little information being sent to customers directly, the website became quickly over-burdened with people simply trying to find out if their power would be cut.

Chatbots can provide a scalable and effective redundancy for this type of occurrence by giving customers outage data and information directly within a messaging environment hosted via a popular messaging platform, such as Facebook and Whatsapp, or directly on PG&Es website and mobile app. Customers could simply provide their address and a bot can automatically let them know if outages are planned, when, and for how long and even provide links to the aforementioned knowledge base articles. Chatbots can also deflect a large number of calls to customer service by providing basic information upfront, freeing up call center agents to deal with urgent or life-threatening customer issues during an emergency. In this way, bots can be an essential tool for disseminating public safety information; they scale instantly during emergency situations and are accessible on a variety of platforms. 

Leverage technology to keep customers in the loop 

Between push notifications, messaging-based bots, call-back technology, email, and social media, any company can keep customers in the loop, regardless of how dire an emergency has occurred. While chatbots wouldn’t have solved all of PG&E’s troubles, they may have gone a long way toward mitigating anger, fear, and mistrust. 

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Published October 15, 2019
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