How Central Stations Prepared for Hurricane Irene

By Ashley Willis

When alarm companies and central stations in the northeast United States received word about Hurricane Irene, they immediately began implementing their emergency management plans.

As it turns out those efforts were not in vain, as many affected communities throughout 11 states remain on emergency management mode and without power. Additionally, early estimates peg the damage between $2 billion and $7 billion, reports the Los Angeles Times. So, just how did the electronic security industry handle Irene?

When Charlotte, N.C.-based CPI Security Systems first received word of the hurricane’s activity, staff members immediately reviewed the company’s standard procedures for major weather-related events.

“Although the weather in our area forecast as clear, we knew the coast would see action,” CPI Security Central Station Manager John Shocknesse tells SSI. “So we increased staffing in both our monitoring and customer care centers to support our customers. We typically have a staff of about eight or nine on first and second shifts, but we increased that by three for the weekend.”

With customers located in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, CPI anticipated that alarm and phone traffic would increase significantly. As a result, many cross-trained employees from other departments were asked to remain on call for the weekend. The decision proved to be a wise one, as phone traffic increased 100 percent, priority alarms increased by almost 20 percent and trouble signals rose more than 500 percent.

It also helped that CPI regularly tests its two generators on a regular basis.

“As with any major weather situation, one of the biggest challenges, obviously, is the uncertainty that accompanies it,” Shocknesse says. “As a UL-Listed central station, we took extra precautions, such as additional power back up. We felt reasonably confident of minimal impact of our center.”

Teamwork helped operators at Hunt Valley, Md.-based AlarmWATCH, a UL-Listed central station, handle Hurricane Irene. Most operators were at a conference in Santa Fe, N.M., when they learned about the hurricane. However, they relied heavily on a backup crew to develop a plan until the team could fly back to headquarters.

“We did a lot of conference calling,” AlarmWATCH Vice President Gail Schreiner tells SSI. “We flew back early and we were all here to execute the plan. After watching the National Weather Service forecast for a few days, we were convinced on what areas would receive the worst of it. We laid out a four-day schedule filled with overlapping scheduling.”

The company, which serves roughly 500 independent alarm companies and monitors more than 100,000 subscribers, normally staffs up to 25 people throughout three eight-hour shifts. However, when news spread about Irene, Schreiner increased staff by 75 percent for three days.

“We probably ran about 95 operators in the central station,” she says. “We also had them work 12-hour shifts and we normally don’t do that. We expected this to be bad, and we got everything we anticipated — maybe even more. We probably handled about 100,000 signals in two days.”

AlarmWATCH employees were also prepared because of the continuous training they receive throughout the year.

“We have a full training center here, and we have monthly staff meetings,” Schreiner says. “We’ve been through several storms, so we have a whole storm plan that we have to kick in depending on the severity that we anticipate for the storm. We re-think everything.”

With 6,500 of its customers being affected by Hurricane Irene, United Central Control (UCC) of San Antonio knew what to expect, as it had experienced Hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005. From that, UCC developed a checklist of things to do in the event of a major weather crisis.

“We have an operations team and a dealer relations team that reached out to any dealers that we had in that area,” UCC President Teresa Gonzalez tells SSI. “We keep our dealers abreast of what is going on. We let them know how we’re going to handle signals if they become overwhelming, and in the aftermath, if they need any assistance, we set up phone numbers that is reachable for their employees.”

Peter Lowitt, president of Hicksville, N.Y.-based Lowitt Alarms agrees with Gonzalez noting that the most important thing alarm companies and central stations must do is preparing customers.

“We sent out E-Blasts to all our customers, advising them on what do,” he tells SSI. “We let them know how they could shut off an alarm and what happens if they’re out of power for an extended period of time before the hurricane hit. We also sent out hurricane preparedness information.”

Realizing that the hurricane could potentially cause power outages, the company also planned accordingly. In addition to ensuring that all generators worked properly, all technicians and managers needed to fill up their cars with gas prior to the hurricane and cash on hand.

“When you lose power, you can’t put gas in your car and ATMs may or not be working,” Lowitt says. “We needed out managers to be ready to pick up and drop off operators and dispatchers whether it was at the central station  or for service.”

The company also increased its monitoring staff from six to 10, with most working either a 12-hour or a double shift. In the event that phone lines shut down, Lowitt Alarms planned to transfer its calls to Michigan using DICE Automation technology.

“Throughout the year, we transfer phone lines back and forth to Michigan as routine bi-monthly preparedness training,” Lowitt says. We have a complete set of instructions on the computer and a hard copy version in the event that all systems go down, our operators know what to do.”

All companies interviewed said they experienced few challenges. However, all note that for any company to operate successfully during a natural disaster or power outage, a strong plan needs to be in place.

“Always have a contingency plan,” says Shocknesse. “Many of the weather’s catastrophe’s we face will have little or no warning, so we have to ensure that backup systems are ready. Assume something will go wrong and have a plan to overcome it. Be sure to brief and debrief your team before and after all major incidents so they can learn from them and be better prepared for the next event.”

Ashley Willis is associate editor for SECURITY SALES & INTEGRATION magazine. She can be reached at (310) 533-2419.

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