Firms Were Ready For Blackout

October 31, 2003
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HOUSTON — Having a plan to guide a business and its employees through an emergency –– like this summer’s massive power outage –– can really pay off.

Having a backup generator, fuel to run it and some extra batteries –– for cell phones, computers and flashlights –– can pay off even more, according to a survey conducted by the International Facility Management Association (IFMA).

Among facility professionals surveyed in cities affected by the August blackout, 93 percent reported that they put their emergency plans into effect.

Of those, 18 percent said their plans were initially developed in anticipation of Y2K-related power interruptions; 35 percent said their plans were developed after the Sept. 11 terror attack. The remaining 47 percent said their plans were drafted before either of those events.

Seventy-eight percent of facility managers surveyed said they had made good use of their back-up generators and Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS) systems.

However, some of the write-in comments indicated that it takes more than just owning a generator to save the day. Building managers also need to have a supply of fuel on hand to run generators, and preventive maintenance is critical. Such maintenance includes regularly starting and running generators to ensure they will function in emergencies.

Power outages caused by weather and other natural disasters are one of the most common emergencies businesses face, including the sort of weather-induced wildfires that have afflicted southern California recently.

Having a back-up generator or UPS system can be very important to ensure the appropriate temperature is maintained in the company’s data center or to maintain the phone system –– the critical communication lifeline.

IFMA’s survey also asked, “What was the smartest thing you did to prepare for or recover from the blackout?” and “What lesson(s) did you learn as a result of this latest blackout?”

The majority of answers applauded the common sense inherent in the motto of the Boy Scouts of America: “Be prepared.” This means having a supply of bottled water, light sticks and batteries — for both flashlights and cell phones.

One facility manager in New York City reported, “All of our staff had canvas backpacks with two bottles of water, a power bar, flashlight, small first aid kit and tissues. The band-aids were very useful, many said.”

Another New York City-based facility professional said it was a smart idea to have materials on hand for sheltering-in-place for staff.

In a Detroit facility that provides sheltered workshops for 250 mentally and physically challenged adults, having a protein-based, non-perishable food supply (granola bars) and water for medicine and drinking was critical, the facility manager reported.

In Farmingdale, N.Y., one manager reported that the company maintains a “black box” in the lobby that contains building diagrams, emergency contact sheets, a radio and flashlights.

Respondents advised that it also was prudent to disconnect all computers, servers, phone systems, printers, copiers, air conditioning systems and appliances from AC power sources in an organized, systematic way.

Doing so prevented the surge associated with the restoration of power from inflicting damage, too.

In Toronto, another manager reported it was wise to keep IT personnel on standby to address technical issues that arose when power was restored.

Photo-luminescent decals in stairwells and emergency lighting equipment also proved valuable, another New York City facility manager said.

And, among the responses in the “lessons learned” category, many extolled the virtues of having at least one analog phone on the premises, and many reported that cellular phone service was not reliable.

Other responses showed that, even with the inconvenience caused by a loss of lights and air-conditioning, facility managers kept their cool and a sense of humor. One Toronto facility manager reported the smartest thing his team did was to go outside and hold a barbecue for essential staff.

The survey was distributed electronically to 1,100 IFMA members in affected cities in Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Ohio and Connecticut, as well as two Canadian provinces.

IFMA, based in Houston, is a professional association for facility management. It has about 17,300 members in 126 chapters and 55 countries.

The organization offers networking opportunities through its regional chapters and councils’ structure, provides certification and educational programs, conducts research, spots trends and assists facility managers in developing skills and strategies to manage the human, structural and real estate assets of an organization.

Information is available through the Association’s Web site, www.ifma.org.

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