Industry powers through blackout

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Thursday, August 21, 2003

August 21, 2003

NEW YORK - The blackout of 2003 might have lasted only 24 hours or so in most places, but the aftermath of the massive power outage that blanketed parts of the Northeast last week has sent systems integrators and installation companies scurrying to service customers left with depleted back-up batteries.

According to numbers from 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.

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

The immediate impacts were felt first by the central stations, dealing with everything from staffing issues and back-up power to processing thousands of additional signals from low batteries, A/C power failures and a host of other alarms brought on 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. on Aug. 15.

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.

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 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.