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No power means no breathing for some

By David Scharfenberg, Daily Planet staff
Saturday July 13, 2002

For David Freeman, a 29 year-old Berkeley resident with muscular dystrophy, a power outage is more than an inconvenience. 

“For me, it’s a matter of life and death,” he said. 

Freeman relies on a ventilator to breath.  

When the electricity goes out, he taps a 12-hour battery attached to his power wheelchair, then a 45-minute battery in the ventilator itself. 

“After that, I’m a fish out of water,” he said. 

Last year, when a severe storm hit, the power outage outlasted Freeman’s battery supply. Fortunately, he owned a back-up generator and was able to make it through the storm.  

Freeman, who is considering a run for City Councilmember Dona Spring’s seat, spoke during a Friday event convened by the Berkeley Center for Independent Living and Pacific Gas & Electric focused on “personal emergency preparedness plans” for the disabled. 

“When the power goes out, we’re bummed out that we can’t watch our ‘Friends’ reruns,” said PG&E spokesman Jason Alderman. “For Mr. Freeman, it’s more serious.” 

PG&E recommends, among other things, that the disabled purchase a generator, maintain a backup telephone that does not rely on electricity, keep blankets handy in case the heat goes out and make sure the local utility company is aware of any special electric-powered life support or medical devices. 

Freeman said friends and family pooled their resources to buy him a generator, which cost over $700, during the Y2K scare. 

“But most people in my condition can’t afford it,” he said. 

Jan Garrett, executive director of the Center for Independent Living, said there is no public funding currently available to pay for generators and other emergency preparedness equipment for the disabled. 

But the disabled rely on a wide range of electrically-powered equipment to survive, Garrett said. Ventilators, power wheelchairs, telephones and elevators could all prove critical in an emergency, she said. 

The center has benefited from limited funding for energy-related education and outreach efforts. A $5,000 grant from PG&E to the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers in Sacramento paid for a brochure on emergency preparedness that will be distributed to the Berkeley Independent Living Center and the 30 other independent living centers around the state in the coming weeks. 

The brochure will also be available on the center’s web site, and the PG&E site, 

A $40,000 grant from the Public Utilities Commission paid for Loreeta Earl to work as the Berkeley center’s energy coordinator and trainer this year, teaching seniors and the disabled in the area how to conserve energy and tap state programs to reduce their energy bills. 

“These are hard to reach populations,” said Earl, lamenting the end of the grant in August. 

Alderman said PG&E might consider chipping in to keep Earl’s position in place.