Industry powers through blackout

Monday, September 1, 2003

NEW YORK - The blackout of 2003 did more than just leave 50 million people without power for a day. It sent monitoring companies scrambling to fully staff their central stations powered by backup generators, while dealers and systems integrators took to the street to check on how their key accounts fared.

According to the National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association, the power outage impacted more than 430 of its member companies located across New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and into Vermont. That number, however, does not include an undetermined number of systems integrators and others in the security industry affected by the blackout.

“Thank God for things like back-up generators,” said Jeff Cohen, general manager of Quick Response, a contract central station in Cleveland. “In a sense, UL has earned its keep for requiring us to keep generators, batteries and all that stuff.”

Dispatchers at the central station were just changing shifts when the power failed around 4 p.m. Many who were about to head home didn’t, and instead worked throughout the night with the normal second shift staff. Cohen said his area of Cleveland was among the first to have power restored by 2 a.m. Friday.

American Response Center, just outside Cleveland, was also counting on its brand new generator to keep it going. Installed less than 48 hours before the blackout occurred, the unit failed to kick on when the lights went out, said Jim Osborne, president of ARC. While the central station ran on its UPS system, which had a capacity for four to eight hours of operation, the scramble for a working generator began. Finally, at 6 p.m. ARC found a replacement gasoline unit, reconfigured the central’s equipment and ran operations “smoothly”, Osborne said, until ARC’s power came back online at 11 a.m. Friday.

In Brooklyn, located among one the hardest hit areas in the eight states affected by the power outage, Affiliated Central got to use something it hadn’t really put to use in the past 20 years - it’s natural gas generator.

“We run it once a week or so,” said Mike Zydor, dealer relations for Affiliated Central. As for additional personnel, the company hired a couple of employees to drive around the city to pick up employees who normally traveled to work on the subway.

Central station Criticom International reported handling more than 265,000 signals in the 24 hours following the power outage, while Electronix Systems took in about 20,000 signals in the 22 hours it was without electricity. Protectron’s central stations in Montreal, Quebec City and in Ottawa were processing about 2,500 alarms per hour at peak times during the blackout, said Sophie Gravel, central station manager for the Montreal-based company.

And while centrals were dealing with power supplies and staffing issues, all were running full-speed to handle the flood of signals from low batteries, A/C power failures and a host of other alarms brought on by the blackout.

For integrator Ted Meshover, president of Universal Security Systems in Hicksville, N.Y., the workload was expected to hit after the power returned, as customers call because their integrated access control and CCTV system needs to be reset.

“They’ll probably need some emergency service,” said Meshover. “There’s a potential break in their security system,” especially for access control systems that have fail safe doors that unlock when the power goes out.

Meshover estimated he would have to visit nearly 20 percent of his 100 customers, clients that include hospitals and industrial complexes with large-scale security systems. Some who employ an uninterrupted power supply system or generator should need little attention, if any, he said, while others whose back-up batteries wore out will need to replace them.

“We estimate that we will have to visit about 25 percent of our customer base,” said Marcia Doman, central station supervisor for Ace American Alarm Co. in Bridgeport, Mich., not far from Detroit. “The calls are coming in and we are sending out our guys as fast as we can to accommodate them.”

Central station volume at John Lombardi’s company, CIA Security in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., was not high because of battery failure reports, but because of customers calling to finding out what was going on. “Everyone was calling to tell us they were without power,” he said. “Another couple hundred people were calling us to ask us do we know why we don’t have power.”

Because Lombardi’s company promotes installing long-lasting back-up batteries, he said many of his customers security systems did not generate a low battery report or battery failure report. But those that did in the first few hours of the blackout, he said, would receive a letter from his company suggesting that they better maintain their security system and back up battery supply.

“No battery should be failing under three to four hours,” he said.

Others saw opportunity in the electrical failure. Mike Ferer, president of Around the Clock Lock & Alarm Co., Babylon, N.Y., contracted with off-duty police officers and offered their services to Ferer’s 10 largest customers.

“You have to be a little innovative when things like this happen,” he said.