Blacked out landscape

Power blackouts – the impact on emergency services

Power availability is often taken for granted in the UK but according to the gas and electricity regulator Ofgem, spare generation capacity in the UK electricity market will continue to drop. ‘De-rated margins’ for electricity – ie the average excess of supply over peak demand – will decrease to just 3% by 2015/16[1], writes Adrian Dain, Mason Advisory.

The decrease is largely due to power plant closures and mothballing. According to the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE), this is due to a combination of factors: EU directives can make it more cost-effective to close a plant than to upgrade it to meet chemical and emission targets; a generation of older sites, including nuclear plants, are reaching the end of operational life; and gas plants being decommissioned or mothballed due to the low profitability of gas-fired generation.

This does not necessarily mean there will be more blackouts, but the risk posed by such a small margin of error during winter-time peaks is very serious for the emergency services. In the short to medium term Ofgem does not believe there is a risk that the UK will have insufficient installed capacity to meet expected demand. However, the amount of spare generating capacity that can be quickly brought on line (the power generation margin) will be lower over the next decade than has been typical for the past 30 years.

The problem with operating the National Grid with a low power generation margin is that it makes it difficult to respond to major incidents in the power network, such as an unplanned power station outage coinciding with low wind conditions and the resultant reduction in output from turbines.

Power plants do have unscheduled outages: occasionally two large power plants can have a simultaneous unplanned outage, as was the case of Sizewell B and Longannet coal-fired power stations in May 2008[2]. This particular event coincided with planned maintenance of other smaller generating plans and the resulting power shortage affected half a million people[3]. And although low wind conditions are infrequent, wind generation can drop substantially for prolonged periods. Such low-wind periods do not always occur in the warmer months as one might expect. According to the RAE, wind-generated power dropped to negligible levels for 10 consecutive days in January 2009 – a time when power consumption would be toward its peak[4].

How blackouts affect emergency services directly

The emergency services are dependent on electricity more than ever. Twenty years ago, many tasks could be completed without power, as most routine procedures were based on paper systems. Even taking the power resilience of critical voice comms as a given, the reliance on computer technology/network communications is such that productivity would fall dramatically after a few hours without power.

Most UK emergency services have well developed disaster recovery plans, to aid recovery from a prolonged loss of power for each of their major sites, with uninterruptible power supplies and diesel-backed power systems to protect critical server rooms. However, the risks posed by a narrow generation capacity margin are often not considered in disaster recovery planning. Power shortages are likely to be region-wide and will affect several of an organisation’s locations simultaneously.

Data centres and major server rooms are often well protected, with resilient power systems. However, general office IT, such as workstations and phones are often not protected, especially at smaller sites. Today more than ever, emergency services staff use mobile data solutions to access national and local IT systems. The cellular networks that support these mobile working platforms are likely to fail relatively soon after power is lost. Without the workstations and mobile devices to access central systems, operations could be severely hampered, unless officers and staff are prepared for the disruption.

Mobile devices will hopefully be fully charged in advance of a power failure – although ambulance services relying on ‘shoreline’ power connectivity to maintain battery charge on station could be affected.

As well as the direct impact on the emergency services, the general public’s dependency on power is likely to create great demands on the emergency services. For example, road and rail networks will be badly affected by power outage. The process of electrification has greatly increased the rail network’s dependency on power, and could lead to major delays and stranded passengers. Road networks have more traffic lights than ever, and the loss of traffic signals combined with absence of street lighting could lead to an increase in road traffic incidents.

If a blackout commences in early morning, many commuters will choose to stay at home. However, power outages historically are more likely to occur in the late afternoon, during peak electrical demand, leaving many commuters displaced. Buildings rely on power not only for the function of business, but for facilities such as lifts, escalators, lighting etc. People may be stranded in lifts or forced to use unlit flights of stairs.

The more we consider society’s dependence on power, the clearer it becomes that a power outage affecting a large town or city will generate significant demands on the local emergency services, at a time when their operational effectiveness may be impeded.

How can the emergency services prepare?

The emergency services need to plan for simultaneous power interruptions over wide geographic regions within their disaster recovery planning. All officers and staff should be aware of what to do in the event of power outages occurring, if they are in work, and if they are about to travel to work. This should be disseminated in advance, as electronic communications are likely to be disrupted during an outage.

The Internet, due to its highly meshed topology and fault-tolerant design, may prove more resilient than cellular phone systems, which may become overwhelmed. Thus websites and social media could be useful channels for communication with the public. Local broadcast radio should be particularly resilient, as it requires limited infrastructure to operate and will be particularly useful for reaching car drivers, whose radio reception is not dependent on mains power.

Limiting the use of 999 services to life-at-risk emergencies, will be vital; this is an ongoing task of educating each successive generation of phone users.

The communication needs of the emergency service command teams should be carefully planned, in order to quickly recover critical business functions.

Immediately at the onset of a power outage, command teams need systems and procedures to quickly establish the extent of the blackout area. This information needs to be updated in real time, so that front-line officers and staff can be directed as appropriate. It should be understood and documented in advance what facilities and functions benefit from resilient power and which will be compromised. In many power outage scenarios, back-office staff may be more productive working from home, if they have some functioning IT, such as a battery-powered laptop or other mobile device. The issuing of commercially-owned-personally-enabled (COPE) devices could help officers and staff to be more contactable when not on shift.

Road networks are likely to become congested and train and tram services may stop operating, thus making the commute to work during power outages prolonged and potentially hazardous. Thus rather than focusing purely on protection of data centres and the head offices, the emergency services should consider supporting a greater number of staff to work remotely. Simple measures, such as having a spare charged laptop battery to hand or the ability to access communications to staff via personal devices, such as home computers, could help maintain key business processes during a power outage.

At Mason, we understand the need to review and update business continuity and disaster recovery plans regularly. With over 25 years’ experience in supporting the emergency services, we are well placed to advise organisations on mission and business critical communications.


  4. – go to pg 32

Source: British APCO Journal – September 2014

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