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The night the lights went out in Napa

Being trapped without power during the recent Northern California wildfires transformed my thinking about technology — we all need a backup plan.

CalFire firefighters monitor a firing operation as they battle the Tubbs Fire on October 12, 2017, near Calistoga, California.
CalFire firefighters monitor a firing operation as they battle the Tubbs Fire on October 12, 2017, near Calistoga, California.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

On a recent October weekend, our governing board met at a delightful new hotel in Napa Valley. It had beautiful rooms with wonderful views and electric blackout shades allowing deep sleep beyond the dawn. Each room even had a high-tech toilet that came alive and raised its cover as soon as you entered the bathroom.

The final night of our stay, wind gusts hit the valley, knocking out the area’s electricity. In the wee hours, the hallway emergency light sputtered on periodically, sirens followed and few of us could sleep. The rooms were pitch-black and the heavy electric-powered blinds could not be opened. The room lights were useless, the landline hotel telephones were dead and our smartphones soon became unusable for anything other than the power-sucking flashlight function.

Tired guests gathered in common areas and soon learned that it wasn't just their room that had turned dark and unwelcoming. Fires were spreading in the area nearby, and there was talk of evacuating the hotel. But there also was word of long lines of bumper-to-bumper traffic, and a concern that the fire was approaching the main roads. The hotel staff urged us to pack. This presented a special challenge to me, as my suitcase was on the patio (due to the small size of the room), which could only be reached by raising the electronically controlled blackout shades.

While we considered our plans, the hotel quickly responded by putting a cold buffet breakfast outside and delivering candles to each room.

Eventually, those catching planes, along with pregnant women and the elderly in our group, left in cars with professional local drivers. We decided to accelerate our meeting time and benefit from the team of experts that had flown in to brief our board on a critical issue. In a sunlit room bereft of electricity, telephone connectivity and coffee, this group of passionate tech industry leaders spent the next couple of hours on an important and substantive topic. Without the distraction of connected smartphones, we had our group’s full attention, and soon concluded an important and productive meeting. We quickly left on a bus and wove our way around some huge smoky fires, which sadly cost many Iives and homes.

I found the experience transformational in my thinking on technology. Both individually and societally, we make ourselves incredibly vulnerable by relying on tech without some redundancy — also known as backup capabilities.

We lost light in our hotel rooms, but many in our group carried and used tiny flashlights. In some countries, such as Japan, hotel rooms are equipped with flashlights. With the exception of most hotels in California and Washington state, which keep flashlights in rooms in the event of an earthquake, most hotels in the U.S. do not. I keep a few in my home, but never considered traveling with one. I will now.

The loss of electric light was serious because the hotel’s blackout blinds cannot be opened manually. This not only was frustrating and denied me access to the patio, but it could be a life-threatening safety issue, too, if there were a fire at my front door and the loss of electricity meant I had no exit route. Makers and buyers of products affecting entry or exit should consider real-life scenarios — and in this case, the electric blinds needed a manual override.

Being cut off from communication was not pleasant. We were only able to get a radio signal by going to the parking lot and listening to car radios. We were able to arrange an earlier bus by driving to the bus dispatch office. Every group and facility should have a portable, solar or hand-cranked radio, or a phone with a working FM radio option. Smartphone manufacturers should consider making FM radio available on devices when technically feasible — and even promote and market it as a safety feature for users. Isolated facilities and homes should consider a satellite phone. Backup chargers were valuable for those who used their phones’ flashlight capabilities and drained the battery.

The lack of information was frustrating, but everyone involved dealt with it calmly — even though it could have been a life-threatening situation. I explained to our board members and attendees that every person was free to make their own decision on staying or leaving. All decided to stay for the completion of the board meeting, and it worked out well.

These horrific fires and the recent devastating hurricanes, as painful as they are, provide crucial learning opportunities. The level of redundancy built into devices and platforms should be tied to the cost, inconvenience and harm from technological failure. Most commercial airplanes are required to have a redundant engine, even though it is expensive and many flights could be flown with one fewer engine. But we accept the redundancy because one failure out of 1,000 flights is not acceptable.

On the other side is low-cost redundancy. Carrying a battery charger and tiny flashlight in a travel kit is low-cost, but potentially high-gain. Automated home locks, doors and even thermostats can also benefit from a redundancy application.

Sometimes the safety stakes are so high, the answer is obvious. As we shift to self-driving vehicles, proponents are debating whether these vehicles should be guided by direct car-to-car communication, smartphone-based spectrum or dead reckoning, GPS or on-board computers. I say all of the above should be explored and tested, to maximize information sharing and safety. Rules need to permit industry to experiment with all the options until we figure out which combination is safest.

During the HDTV debate of the 1990s, as broadcasters and TV makers grappled with how best to transition to high-definition technology, various proponents argued for their different systems, each having a different number of lines of resolution. I learned that it would not take much to create a chip that could receive all formats and automatically display the picture at the resolution the manufacturer wanted. So I proposed that all TVs should use such a chip. Everyone was fine with this solution, and it allowed us to shift gracefully and easily to a national HDTV system. This emphasizes that redundancy need not be costly.

The redundancy analysis can also be applied to our own buying decisions. For example, I have been frustrated many weekend evenings when I planned to stay home and watch a movie, but my broadband provider failed to provide a usable signal. The obvious solution was to invest a few hundred dollars in an Ultra HD Blu-ray player and buy or rent movies. Not only do I get a better visual and audio experience than I can get with today's broadband and Wi-Fi, but I can actually own a movie I will want to see again.

I was thankful to learn from and survive the power blackout and fires. Others were not so lucky. My experience has led me to considering redundancy as a factor in my future tech planning.

By the way ... thankfully, the toilet had a manual flush option. Successful redundancy at work.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,200 consumer technology companies, and author of The New York Times best-selling books, “Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World's Most Successful Businesses” and “The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream.” His views are his own. Reach him @GaryShapiro.

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