Security and Disaster Planning: Power Outages and Hurricane Season

Aug. 2, 2006

By Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA

The dog days of summer are upon us, along with peak-energy demands, hurricane season, and thunderstorms. Global warming may play a part in the unprecedented rash of recent heat waves, but rising dependency on electrical power for technology, building systems, and industrial use has surely affected record peak demands for power in the United States. Inevitably, these factors will continue to converge more often, resulting in widespread short and long-term U.S. power outages.

Known as the hottest and most humid times of the year, the dog days of summer occur only in the Northern Hemisphere, where they usually fall between July and early September, though dates vary by region and latitude. The dog days are so named because this is the time that Sirius, the Dog Star (and the brightest star seen from Earth) rises after, and sets before, the sun, thus lost in its glare. The Romans called these sultry days “caniculares dies” (days of the dogs) after the constellation Canis Major, where Sirius is found in the night sky. They believed that heat from Sirius increased the sun’s heat, since the hot, humid summer days, often plagued by discomfort and disease, coincided with the time Sirius rose and set with the sun.

Heat Waves Often Generate Blackouts
On Aug. 14, 2003, a widespread power outage, or blackout, affected 50 million people over 9,300 square miles in six northeastern states and parts of Canada for several days. That event prompted many homes and businesses to re-assess their ability to withstand another outage of 48 hours or longer.

As of this writing in late July 2006, in 8 square miles in Queens, New York City, approximately 25,000 Con Edison customers (or about 100,000 people in businesses, homes, and apartment buildings) have been without power for 8 days, without any indication of when service will be restored, after demand for power soared in an earlier heat wave. According to reports, 10 of the area’s 22 network feeder cables, each carrying 27,000 volts of electricity to neighborhood transformers, went out in an unprecedented set of failures whose cause remains unknown. Planes were grounded at LaGuardia Airport, and subway service to Manhattan was reduced. There was talk about pursuing criminal investigations against Con Edison management for its handling of the situation, including vastly underestimating the number of affected customers to the media.

In California, tropical heat and humidity has driven demand for electricity to record-high demands, resulting in rolling blackouts and leaving over 1 million people without power.

Unlike the occasional brownout, where lights and power operate at reduced capacity, blackouts of 48 hours or longer can cause significant damage to businesses and create suffering, especially among the elderly and handicapped. Without elevators, electricity, desk or cell phones, running water, plumbing, and refrigeration for any extended time, especially in hot weather, the quality of life for most Americans diminishes dramatically, rivaling living conditions in developing nations. Businesses, public agencies, and civic institutions come to a halt and struggle to deliver services. The loss of power, especially in major metropolitan areas, can paralyze regional, national, and global economies.

Maintaining infrastructure is a task for the utilities and governments, but disaster planning for power outages is a must for businesses. Here are some cool ideas for the dog days and hurricane season ...

Power-Outage Planning Checklist for Businesses

  1. Assess how power loss, surges, and voltage fluctuations might affect critical equipment and electronic records, including during nights and weekends.
  2. Develop shutdown procedures for internal technology.
  3. Assess redundant emergency power resources, from generators to back-up energy and fuel storage.
  4. Review facility issues, from site security, evacuation, and safety to contacting personnel via cell or home phones.
  5. Identify critical functions that can be transferred to other companies or facilities.
  6. Explore sharing arrangements with non-competing businesses and colleagues.
  7. Determine how unplanned operations might affect contractual obligations to meet schedules and if contract adjustment provisions are in place.
  8. Create a system to communicate with staff, clients, and consultants if power is lost or interrupted for an extended length of time.
  9. Coordinate planned activities with local law enforcement and emergency services.
  10. Test the strategies developed through regular drills with all personnel.

Source: Victor O. Schinnerer & Company Inc., excerpted from Building Security: Handbook for Architectural Planning and Design, ed. Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA (©McGraw-Hill, 2004)

According to Thomas M. Jung, RA, director of architectural and engineering facilities planning, New York State Department of Health, Troy, NY, the August 2003 blackout provided several lessons for hospitals and institutions that are part of regional and statewide networks. Many businesses and institutions were without power for 2 days or more.

Healthcare Facilities
After the blackout, many New York State hospitals and nursing homes found that routine testing of emergency generators typically anticipated an outage of a few hours, not days. The extended duration of the blackout provided evidence to some facilities that their emergency systems required major upgrade and repair, which is not always apparent during limited operational testing. 

Facilities must also ensure that minimum fuel levels are always available. In this case, the statewide power loss resulted in limited options for regional surge capacity, resource sharing of fuel and equipment, and moving patients, since all facilities were affected.

Healthcare facilities and other institutions are increasingly reliant on information technology and communications systems for routine operations. Lack of access to these systems during an outage may require a manual, on-site, face-to-face approach when personnel cannot be reached by phone and cell phone batteries cannot be recharged.

Immediately after 9/11, the need for constant communications and data sharing between healthcare facilities and government agencies was essential for emergency planning and response, especially before the full scope of the casualties was known. “All healthcare facilities should review emergency power systems and configurations to ensure critical data sharing and emergency circuits support communications systems,” Jung says.

Access to data is only part of the challenge. “Critical data should be backed up and copies [should be] stored off-site and even out of state, such as employment and payroll records. After Katrina, it’s clear that, especially in flood-prone areas, basements are not good places for storage rooms, vaults, critical documents, records, or HVAC and emergency-power equipment,” says Orlando T. Maione, AIA, ACHA, principal, Maione Associates, Stony Brook, NY.

As chief architect at the State University of New York at Stony Brook Hospital during the 2003 blackout, Maione noted the following scenarios:

  • With the power out, the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) began to heat up almost immediately when partial power was restored, but not the air-conditioning. The medical monitoring and “preemie” heat lamps generated so many BTUs that the temperature soared to the high 80s in a short time. Every public, private, and construction portable electric fan in the building was commandeered and manually hauled up eight or nine flights of stairs to the NICU to cool the bassinet areas. Fortunately, there were 18 extension cords on hand from an in-progress construction modification test conducted the week before, and the supplier had not yet picked up the cords.
  • Even younger, fit staff that climbed several flights in the early stages soon got worn out after a few trips. They formed a “bucket brigade” of volunteers up the stairwells to pass extension cords, fans, and needed supplies from hand to hand until they reached the NICU. The same energy-saving technique was used for moving patient food trays, food, and water for volunteers. There was no problem finding staff to help maintain the brigade during the emergency, since all workspaces were dark and no one could perform medical tasks.
  • Without power for the cash registers, refrigerators, and minimal emergency lighting available (and the cafeteria ready to serve dinner), the administration decided to create, stock, and maintain a free buffet for employees and stranded visitors. Discussions of back-up power for the cafeteria occurred later.

Businesses need emergency-communications plans during blackouts and hurricanes. Maione offered the following recommendations:

  • Identify a contact person and phone number that is out of town - even out of state - especially when local telephone and wireless systems are down or jammed. 
  • Maintain an emergency log to record the time of events, calls in and out, and problems and responses. Memories fail during stressful times, and the log provides valuable information, as well as potential legal back-up, should liability issues arise. For a company with branch offices, this may mean selecting a branch for everyone to call when they can. For others, it may even be a trusted, out-of-state retiree or other designee.
  • Keep a printed copy of emergency data for all employees with addresses and home and cell-phone contact numbers.
  • Knowing which personnel have four-wheel drive vehicles and trucks can be useful when there is a need to get through in difficult conditions.

Mission-critical laboratories and high-tech facilities are vulnerable to the consequences of power outages. In August 1999, a 2-day outage destroyed several years of research at New York’s Columbia University and damaged millions of dollars of equipment. “Regardless of the cause, from a tripped circuit breaker or a local outage, it’s critical to anticipate potential problems and prepare for the consequences,” says Laurie A. Sperling, CPSM, principal, Health, Education + Research Associates Inc., St. Louis.

For example, backing up the HVAC system on emergency power is occasionally overlooked, but some equipment with narrow temperature or humidity requirements could be damaged if the space is above or below the recommended range. “Maintain a list of all equipment and utility systems that must be reset or restarted when power returns, with printed instructions nearby so this can be accomplished safely,” Sperling adds.

Crisis Communications: Tell It Like It Is
As we have seen during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, media relations during any emergency situation can rapidly enhance, or diminish, the status and reputation of major organizations and individuals responsible for disaster management.

Keeping the media informed (accurately and promptly) of any major developments impacting the public can make or break carefully crafted public images of organizations and individuals. Providing inaccurate information to the media, or when the facts can readily be shown on camera (as was the case during Hurricane Katrina), is a public-relations disaster that can attract as much unwanted attention as images of physical damage. However, good media relations after a disaster can allay public concerns and bolster confidence in recovery activities.

“Though Tropical Storm Allison never reached hurricane force when it hit Houston in 2001, businesses and hospitals suffered flooding more severe than any caused by hurricanes before or since. Many institutions in the Texas Medical Center complex lost research laboratories, all HVAC capacity, telecommunications, and IT infrastructure. Hospitals such as Methodist, the teaching site for Baylor College of Medicine, quickly learned the value of having a crisis-communications plan in place, along with one or more public relations professionals available to respond to the barrage of media requests that came in asking about the status of the hospital facilities and preparedness. A crisis-communications plan should be part of disaster planning efforts,” says Elaine W. Krause, president, Communications Outsourcing, Houston.

Energy Efficiency
During the sweltering dog days of summer, expect to experience power outages for longer periods of time than previously anticipated during testing and training. Use your energy wisely, whether fuel, emergency power, or personal resources. Plan ahead for various contingencies and, most of all, try to stay cool under duress.

Resources Cited

Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA, principal of Barbara Nadel Architect, in New York City, specializes in healthcare, justice, and institutional planning and design. She is editor-in-chief of Building Security: Handbook for Architectural Planning and Design (McGraw-Hill, 2004) and writes frequently on design and technology.

Contact Barbara at [email protected].

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