Saturday, March 9, 2024

How Many City and SD G&E Employees Does It Take To Change A Lightbulb?

[ Let Inga Tell You, La Jolla Light, published in 4 segments (March 14, March 21, March 28, April 4) 2024 This is a saga of how many people it takes to change a (street)light bulb in San Diego. Find out the answer at the end.

Get It Done: The app where city repairs go to die.

At least that's been my feeling since posting a repair request over a year ago on San Diego s Get It Done site when the streetlight in front of our corner house went out. I was dismayed to find out at the time that the city was backlogged 5900 streetlights repairs. That number grew to 6,100 two months later. We doubted it would be fixed in our lifetimes.

Unfortunately, the streetlight fixture (owned by the city) is mounted on a telephone pole owned and this is important, powered - by San Diego Gas & Electric (SD G&E). And neither party wants anything to do with it, or each other. In my efforts to resolve this situation I have spent the last year in an infinite loop in the seventh circle of infrastructure hell.

You can only imagine the "How many people does it take to change a light bulb?"  jokes this situation has inspired. I'll tell you at the end.

There is a true paucity of streetlights in my neighborhood, so losing even one makes a big difference. Our corner, in particular, is heavily trafficked by pedestrians including restaurant go-ers, dog walkers, people exercising, and us just trying to find our driveway. We had an electrician come out and add additional outdoor lighting just so we could find our front gate. But the entire block was pitch black.

So dark, in fact, that at night, we could hear the screeching of tires as cars barely made the turn at our corner. This was not an idle fear on our part. Three times while we've lived here, cars have crashed through our front fence, one coming to within six inches of the house.

The irony is that if it weren't for me, this light would have been out for more than 20 years. I've had to deal with its repair twice before in the decades I've lived at my quirky address. The first two times the light went out (2002 and 2012), its repair was complicated by the fact that neither SD G&E nor the city of San Diego would lay claim to our street light. Eerily, both insisted that there was no street light in front of our house. (Cue the twilight zone music here.)

It's hard enough to get a streetlight fixed in this city. Getting a non-existent streetlight fixed is exponentially harder. I consider the repair of a phantom streetlight not once but twice and now three times to be among my top life accomplishments and should be listed in my future obituary.

Previously I could deal with actual humans. Both times, it took six months of pathological persistence. But pathological persistence is my middle name. (Well, actually it s Louise.)

Now, alas, the only way to get a streetlight repair is through the city's Get It Done app. No hope of prevailing upon actual humans as I have done before. I was pleased to read some months ago that the city was going to hire outside contractors to catch up with the backlog.

When I filed the Get It Done report, I was careful to include three photos including the exact location of this streetlight, including the street sign below it, and photos of the fixture itself mounted on the wooden telephone pole. Just try to say it doesn't exist now, bozos!

There really is a streetlight fixture on this pole

So after a mere year, I was thrilled to get an Update message from Get It Done saying, Thank you for using Get It Done to report non-emergency problems to the City of San Diego. Your report is now closed.   City crews recently resolved the issue or conducted the necessary repairs as reported in your inquiry.

Except, no they didn't. The streetlight was still out. An entire year wasted. Were we back to the whole "not our streetlight"  issue?

Yup! The city ultimately confirmed what I already feared: The street light on the wooden pole belongs to SDG&E, follow up would have to go through them. Thank you. Um, you couldn't have mentioned this in your Update before closing out the repair request?

Gah! Summarizing a lot of conversations, it turns out that the Get It Done guys did come out and replace the actual streetlight bulb in December of 2023. But because it is mounted on a pole owned by SD G&E, SD G&E has to execute the power source. That is, plug it in. I would need to file an on-line repair request with SD G&E (I included photos) on their own version of Let s Never Get It Done called We Can t Do It Either.

To do this, information including the pole number was required. At least now there are pole numbers posted on the poles (a definite boost to my previous efforts.) But there was no place to explain the actual problem. I could predict that they would come back with either it was the city s light fixture (it is) or that their maps showed no street light in this location (they don t).

Fearing this report was just going into a black hole (it did), I decided to try calling SD G&E to see if I could explain this situation to an actual human. (See pathological persistence above). Let us in no way suggest that one calls SD G&E and gets quickly connected to a helpful human. No, one gets sucked into the root structure of their phone tree system where you will languish like a decaying morel.

But ultimately I got connected with a Customer Service rep. He was very nice and listened to my convoluted saga. What needed to be done, I explained, was for SD G&E to come out and hopefully find this pole number and plug in the city's new light bulb to a power source which happens to be right there. After consulting with his supervisor (I wasn't allowed to talk to a supervisor myself), he said he was going to do an escalation for us and it should be fixed in 10-15 business days.

My husband rolled his eyes and said, "like that will happen."  He was prescient. Two weeks later I received an email from SD G&E in response to the repair request I had submitted on their app:

Good morning/afternoon, Unfortunately, this streetlight located at your address is maintained and owned by the City of San Diego, and therefore does not fall under SDGE's streetlighting department. I went ahead and reported this issue on your behalf on the City of San Diego Get it Done website: Here is your Report Tracking Number.

It's probably a good thing one can't send photon torpedoes through email. 

Meanwhile, the city's Get It Done app sent me a confirmation of my new service request. I was now in a continuous futile perpetual loop. 

I fired off Gah!-grams to both SD G&E and to Get It Done but didn't hear back (and didn't expect to).  So, I called SD G&E again and finally got an actual human to discuss my streetlight dilemma.  He had all the previous notes from previous calls and on-line service requests and did concede that this was a puzzling and frustrating situation.  I will say that SD G&E is very good at note taking. Just not good at resolution.

I asked: is there truly no mechanism for a human from SD G&E to talk (as in using English language) to a human from the city?  Answer: Nope, there isn't!  Their communication  apparently can solely be done by dumping jobs on each other's apps.  But he said he would put in an escalated request to send someone out to turn on our light bulb which would happen in "10 to 15 business days."

Three weeks later, of course, still no light. I called SD G&E back yet again and got another of their genuinely helpful Customer Care reps who looked at the case file and said the previous request had been closed because "the work had been completed." But she was going to put in a new expedited request directly to the "streetlight department"  which should happen within you guessed it "10 to 15 business days."

You are probably shocked by now to learn that no one ever showed up. So I called back yet again and got yet another genuinely helpful Customer Care rep. But this kid is my hero. After reviewing what was at this point the War and Peace of case notes (how much money did SD G&E spend not turning on a light bulb?) and putting me on hold for considerable time, he came back and reported that he had tried to directly contact the streetlight escalation person and was puzzled to find that this person is no longer in the employee database. Doesn't work there anymore. Who knows how long he's been gone? So all those escalation requests were going into a black hole. He agreed that this situation had gone on long enough and that he was going to send this request directly to his own boss. I said, "do we know for a fact that he actually exists?"  OK, I was getting jaded. But the kid laughed and yes, he knew this person was real and actually worked there.

The next day, my lawn maintenance service was outside mowing so I almost missed hearing my doorbell ring. Deciding to check, I opened the door to see someone leaving my front gate - an SD G&E guy! I ran out after him and said, Are you here about the streetlight? And he said he had no idea. He was just told to come to this address and was assuming it must be some issue inside. He hadn't been given any information. If I hadn't answered the door, we would have been back to square one.

So you re probably thinking, problem solved! But you would be wrong. Oh, so wrong.

I will say that this guy turned out to be Hero #2 (after the Customer Care Rep). I have his name and if I could find him I'd like to send him and his wife for a really nice dinner. He went up to my streetlight in the bucket thing on his truck but when he came down, I wasn't seeing the happy face I hoped for. "I connected it,"  he says, "but the problem is that the wiring is bad. They really shouldn't put aluminum wiring this close to the ocean."   So it would all have to be re-wired with copper wiring to the two nearest poles, each about 90 feet away. (Copper wiring apparently corrodes too, but not as fast.) He would put in a repair request.

SD G&E shows up to look at streetlight 

That's when I truly thought it was game over. A non-emergency repair request for total rewiring for a single streetlight? This probably wouldn't be fixed in my children's lifetimes. Doing my best not to literally break down sobbing in frustration (and flat out rage), I explained that this situation had been going on for more than a year, that I had spent many, many dozens of hours being bounced back between the city and SD G&E and I feared it would never ever get done. He said he would try to expedite it. I wasn't hopeful. Been there, heard that.

I asked if the city wouldn't have checked the wiring when they put in the new bulb in December, 2023? And he said, Well, they should have. (But clearly didn't.)

So, I said, is it possible that there was nothing wrong with the light fixture itself from the get-go but has always been a wiring issue? He said that was entirely possible.

About fifteen minutes later, I was leaving my house en route to Bevmo to buy the adult beverages that this situation clearly warranted, and noticed the SD G&E truck was still there. My Hero gets out and says, "I've arranged for them to come out today." Was I hallucinating? Oh my gosh, I said. Can I hug you? He didn't seem comfortable with that but I hugged him anyway.

But at 4:30, no sign of them. Have I been stood up yet again? At 4:35, however, an SD G&E crew showed up including two guys to manage traffic on our busy corner. More heroes. I am so incredibly grateful to them.

So now you re thinking we're really finally done. As I m standing out there with the SD G&E crews, one them offers that they aren't sure which bulb the city put in which they need to know for the wiring. I said, well, if it's the wrong one, I assume you have extra bulbs that you can put in? He says no, the city is very proprietary about their bulbs and don t share them with SD G&E. But if the light doesn't come on after they've re-wired, they can put in a request with the city on Get It Done to come out and change it.

Did you ever feel like your head was going to explode?

Uh-oh! SD G&E isn't sure the city installed the right lightbulb for the streetlight

It took over three hours to disconnect the old aluminum wiring and reconnect the copper stuff. When the truck and the work lights were working at the other pole, the two guys directing traffic kept saying, "Geesh, it is so dark out here! And this traffic is going sooo fast!" They were waving their Stop signs frantically at approaching cars to keep from being mown down in this pitch black intersection. Welcome to my world.

But then at 8 p.m., they plug it all in, everybody holds their breath, and there is light! Yes, my streetlight is back in action! Neighbors, dog walkers, restaurant walkers, and even us are able to cross the street safely again.

I consider this article a public service. Mine is not the only city-owned streetlight fixture mounted on an SD G&E wooden telephone pole. There are, in fact, tons of them.

An SD G&E person explained that, long ago and far away, SD G&E owned the streetlights on their poles but that at some point, the city decided to take over streetlight management. And thus you have the situation that I have now dealt with three times: one entity owns the streetlight fixture itself while the other one controls the power to it. So the city will replace the streetlight bulb, but only SD G&E can come out and actually turn it on.

And yes, this is completely insane.

Instead, each of them keeps denying it s their problem and referring the home owner back to the other via their automated repair apps in an infinite futile loop. Honestly, you begin to suspect you're dealing with dealing with robots missing essential wiring.

As I noted earlier, this is the third time since I've lived in my home that I've had to fight it out with the city and SD G&E to get that streetlight fixed.

So now, for the third time, against all odds, I have had my non-existent, unacknowledged, dually-owned streetlight restored to service.

There are a number of take aways here:

When I consider all the interchanges I had with both the city and SD G&E, I can t even imagine what fixing this one streetlight cost both of them.

But all of it could have been accomplished if there was any communication between the city and SD G&E. Apps are great for routine things but only humans are ever going to sort out issues like this.

I've tried to add up the hours I've put into this project - filing repair reports, sitting endlessly on hold, documenting phone calls, exhorting (unsuccessfully) help from both my city councilman and local TV stations to break this infrastructure log jam. I will also probably remember that SD G&E pole number (P833485) long after I've forgotten my Social Security number.

The irony is, I would have happily paid out of pocket for this repair to be done.

I'm so incredibly grateful to my three heroes, the SD G&E Customer Service kid who managed to finally get this request to an actual human who would actually do something about it, the SD G&E repair guy who prevailed on someone to get a crew out here to re-wire the corroded cables, and for the crew who came out and did it. It has made such a huge difference having this streetlight working again.

I'm definitely going to leave instructions in my estate documents so that whomever ends up with this house is aware of what it takes to restore this streetlight to service the next time it goes out. I would hate to take such critical information to my grave. And I truly do want it mentioned in my obituary.

OK, so now you think this year of infrastructure repair ping pong is truly, finally over. Not quite.

About a week after the light was finally fixed, I suddenly woke up in the middle of the night with a terrifying thought. In the process of pingponging responsibility for this streetlight's repair back and forth from the city to SD G&E, SD G&E had put in a new Get It Done request to the city which was still in effect. Gah! Noooooo! The last thing we needed was for the city to show up and start messing with a streetlight that was fixed. If they unplugged the fixture to check the bulb, SD G&E would have to come plug it in again. Back to square one!

So I looked up the Get It Done report number and tried to close it but couldn't since we hadn't originated it. But I sent Get It Done an email saying the problem was fixed and to please close this report. Step away from the light! It took five requests. But they finally have.

Could this really, finally, be done? I almost don t know what I'll do with my free time.

I began some time back by invoking the "How many people does it take to change a (street)light bulb" joke. Between the city and SD G&E, my count is 33.

                                                       Let there (finally) be light!



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