Blacked Out … But Not Powerless

On the night when all the lights went out for much of the American Northeast and caused widespread panic and confusion, it was business as usual for most central stations and other alarm monitoring facilities.

While the bright lights of Times Square were dulled into a still darkness on that Aug. 16 night, the computer screens in U.S.A Central Station’s offices were still aglow. As transmission lines were failing in South Canton, Ohio, operators at Diebold’s Alarm Monitoring Center in North Canton saw nothing more than a flicker of their lighting system. Even with its main lights out, the American Response Center a block outside of Cleveland was still handling every one of its calls, albeit with only the light of a few floor lamps to guide their keystrokes.

U.S.A. Central Station, Diebold and American Monitoring Center share very little in common in terms of the size and scope of their companies and their clients, but they did share something that helped them get through the largest blackout in North American history: They all had an emergency disaster plan to help them deal with the unexpected.

If central stations took anything as a lesson from the 2003 blackout, it was the need to have a comprehensive plan for staying in operation during a disaster or other unforeseen circumstance. Elements of that preparation include having sufficient backup power, adhering to UL standards, examining potential staffing issues, prioritizing calls and conducting drills to ensure there are no glitches in the plan.

Majority of Central Stations May Not Be Prepared for Disaster

In the daily hustle and bustle of alarm monitoring centers, planning for an unforeseen occurrence can be far down on the day-to-day agenda for central station managers. When the main goal is to deal with customers’ needs now, there’s less importance given to dealing with being prepared for later. Yet being prepared for the future may prove to be just as important to the central station customer as what they get in the present.

Central Station Alarm Association (CSAA) Executive Vice President Stephen Doyle knows something about being prepared from his days as a pilot in the Marines. He spent countless hours in disaster drills and flight simulators. In the fake cockpit, he tussled with just about anything his trainers could throw at him so that he would be ready for when he was in a real cockpit.

Doyle wants to see the same “practice makes perfect” mentality come into play among central stations, but he was disappointed the first week of September when he attended the CSAA-hosted disaster planning seminar in Bay City, Mich.

The event proved timely even though it was planned months before the blackout. With that fresh on the minds of attendees, Doyle was still shocked to find how few central stations had a thought-out disaster plan and how few practice for the worst.

The trend, according to Doyle, seems to be that most of the larger security companies have a disaster plan in place and practice it.

Daniel Demers, president and CEO of Protectron Inc. and its 170,000 customers in Canada, saw how important such a plan was when the August blackout crossed the border and turned out the lights for his 28,000 Ontario customers. With redundancies like multiple generators and multiple call centers, Protectron was ready to handle the massive influx of AC power down and low battery calls without any kind of delay.

Lessons on Staffing, Prioritizing Learned When Power Went Out

By its unpredictable nature, the blackout provided a look at just how well prepared central stations are to deal with sudden crises.

Having a plan in advance proved to be an asset for Affiliated Central – especially considering its location in Brooklyn. In fact, the company takes pride in the fact that in its 26 years of existence, it has never gone out. Not during the last “Great Blackout” in 1977 and not when the World Trade Center was attacked just miles away. The building was covered in soot from the 9/11 attacks, but stayed online.

While they still had an issue bringing in staff during the 2003 blackout with the subways out, Affiliated Central stayed up yet again.

With staffing already an issue due to the increased call volume, and public transportation ground to a halt, Affiliated Central had to go outside the playbook to bring in its operators. Affiliated paid people to pick up and bring its employees to the office. Once they got there, Affiliated also made sure employees didn’t go hungry, holding impromptu barbeques through the night.

Save perhaps for the holidays, August is the toughest month to work late. But when the blackout struck, the time was short to be sure there was enough staff to handle what was coming. At most central stations, those who started the day at the crack of dawn needed to work through the night, and those who came in for the later shifts had to stick around until the next morning.

Even in the days after the blackout, staffs had to work extra hard to clean up the mess of bad signals and low batteries the event left in its wake.

With backup generators and batteries keeping systems functioning normally, the first hint that something major was going on appeared on operators’ computer screens – a suddenly massive list of AC and battery power failures.

Among U.S.A. Central Station’s monitoring centers, the Port Chester, N.Y., and Milford, Conn., locations were in areas affected by the blackout, while the company’s new St. Paul, Minn., station was still weeks from being operational. The moment of blackout was the same in the two operating centers – nothing more than an LED display indicating that the backup generators had turned on.

Central stations on the whole reported between a 100-percent and 450-percent increase in signal volume during those first few minutes of the blackout – almost all from AC failures and low batteries. The mode of action most took, if they didn’t have it in place already, was to either autolog or set aside the AC and battery calls for later and set priority for more urgent emergencies. “When 30,000 people are affected, you can’t call 30,000 people,” Didden explains.

Prioritizing the signals not only avoided needless time spent dealing with expected power failures, but also may have played a role in the lack of a boost in crime during the blackout.

Just as power went out in the East and Diebold’s monitors began filling up with AC and battery alarms from bank branches, a teller in one bank informed a Diebold associate of a hold-up. Even as Diebold was receiving a multitude of signals, it took just 14 seconds from the time the call was received for the associate to dispatch the alarm

UL Underwrites Safety Plans for Alarm Monitoring Stations
When it comes to uniform standards for central stations to ensure the safety of their customers, everything starts with UL standard 827.

For a central station to tout they are “UL-Listed,” they must comply with the requirements contained in the standard.  There isn’t a requirement that a central station be UL-Listed, but most security companies say customers and installers can only trust those with a listing to be there for them in the event of a disaster. UL 827’s requirements – especially those pertaining to backup power systems – are designed to ensure a central station will be able to provide service during a disaster.

The idea of UL-Listing central stations dates back to the 1920s, when the insurance industry expressed concerns about the lack of standards for the infant alarm monitoring industry. UL’s requirements have now had more than 80 years of experiences to be adjusted, including other great blackouts. As central stations put together their disaster plans, UL 827 provides a framework. In fact, the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) National Fire Alarm Code (NFPA 72) refers to UL 827.

Multiple Stations G

If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more valuable industry content like this, click here to sign up for our FREE digital newsletters!

Security Is Our Business, Too

For professionals who recommend, buy and install all types of electronic security equipment, a free subscription to Commercial Integrator + Security Sales & Integration is like having a consultant on call. You’ll find an ideal balance of technology and business coverage, with installation tips and techniques for products and updates on how to add to your bottom line.

A FREE subscription to the top resource for security and integration industry will prove to be invaluable.

Subscribe Today!

Get Our Newsletters