After Napa and Sonoma counties complained that vital PG&E posts were being left vacant with the approach of wildfire season, utility officials told NBC Bay Area it’s all a “misunderstanding” and it intends to fill currently empty slots in its public safety specialist program.
In letters obtained by the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit, both counties objected to PG&E about the loss of their assigned local public safety specialists, who serve as operational and logistical liaisons between the utility and local agencies in power shutoffs, wildfires and other emergencies. County officials say PG&E officials told them the positions were being frozen for financial reasons.
In a May 11 letter, Kerry John Whitney, risk and emergency services manager for Napa county, called the apparent freeze on hiring replacements to save money “inexplicable,” and said leaving the positions vacant “sacrifices public safety and responsible operations for short-term cash flow.”
Sonoma county penned a similar letter. Santa Rosa fire marshal Paul Lowenthal said he was told during an April 26 meeting with PG&E that the vacant role in Sonoma county would not be filled, but handled by a specialist already serving Humboldt, Trinity and Siskiyou counties.
“We told them that that's a concern to us and that it makes it challenging to have somebody that far away that's technically supposed to protect and be responsible for our jurisdiction,” Lowenthal said.
But in a letter to Napa officials on Monday, PG&E assured them it will be filling the vacant posts. Jeff Smith, operations spokesman for the utility, said there was a “misunderstanding” about whether the jobs were part of the existing hiring freeze that the utility imposed late last year. Smith stressed that despite what counties may have been told, the freeze did not apply to critical public safety specialist positions. He did not say why PG&E officials apparently had told county officials otherwise.
The prospect of the freeze left both wine country counties troubled since the utility had been touting its use of two dozen fire specialists in its wildfire safety plan as playing “a key role during emergency planning activities and public safety engagement.”
“PG&E's choice to leave PSS positions in fire-prone areas vacant is a giant step backward and is completely inconsistent with PG&E's many public declarations that safety is its top priority,’’ Napa risk official Whitney said in his letter to the utility’s top safety official.
Napa officials said they had built a strong relationship with the public safety specialist PG&E had hired in 2020, who left the position earlier this year.
“I went to work for them to try to make a difference,’’ said retired Cal Fire veteran Mike Wilson, who had been PG&E’s liaison to Napa county.
Wilson said that it wasn’t long after being hired that he pitched in to assist Napa in dealing with the Glass Fire, which came three years after he nearly lost his own home in Napa in the Atlas fire in 2017.
He said his goal was to “bring some of that credibility of your past career into the space of your job as liaison with your neighbor -- and it seemed to work pretty well.”
But in March, after Wilson left the specialist program to work for a fire safety non-profit in Napa, county officials said they learned PG&E was leaving the position vacant due to a freeze. A freeze they said was especially disconcerting since PG&E paid its CEO Patti Poppe $50 million in compensation last year.
But on Monday, PG&E told the counties that while there was no pause in hiring, filling the open positions had been a challenge and could take more time.
“To be clear, we are not leaving these positions vacant; we fully intend to fill our open…positions and are working through the hiring process to ensure the most qualified and experienced personnel are hired in these roles,” the company said in a statement.
In the meantime, the utility says, “our existing team of dedicated public safety specialists are temporarily responding to the needs of our local partners.” Santa Rosa’s fire marshal says he still can’t figure out why PG&E would even consider leaving any of the critical liaison posts empty with fire season looming. He and other first responders worry that until the posts are filled, PG&E will be overstretched and they could once again be left to fend for themselves in an emergency.