Communicating: Weathering the Storm

There is an old saying that goes, “There is going to be weather, whether or not.” While this is certainly true, it seems that during the past 12 months, much of this weather has been extreme. Record temperatures, heavy snows, tornadoes...


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Security & Stability

Obviously, the security and stability of your dispatch center is of prime importance to maintaining communications. Since the loss of electrical power is often one of the side effects of disasters, due care must be taken in assuring viable and adequate sources of energy. Again, focusing on the concept of no single point of failure, this often involves the use of generators and Uninterruptable Power Supplies (UPS). However, these do not operate without proper maintenance, and both should be exercised regularly under load. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1221, Standard for the Installation, Maintenance and Use of Emergency Services Communications Systems, 2010 edition, calls for generators to have at least 24 hours of fuel. Industry rule of thumb often uses 72 hours as a safe buffer. However, Hurricanes Katrina, Wilma and more recently Irene have cast doubt upon this wisdom by creating much lengthier scenarios. Part of your planning, therefore, should take into account having contracts and agreements in place to secure the additional fuel, services and supplies needed to assure protracted operation.

Additionally, planning should account for the potential of community isolation. From the Outer Banks of North Carolina to small towns in Vermont, communities were literally cut off from conventional means of outside access for a number of days. Will a contract for diesel with a supplier 25 miles away be of any value if the only bridge to town is out?

 

PSAP Readiness

Continuing your PSAP readiness inspection, a check of your UPS system is in order. Are all the batteries fresh? Has it been tested lately? Have devices been added to the load that diminish its run time? It’s not unheard of for equipment to be continually installed in the PSAP without regard to expanding the battery racks, thereby reducing what was once a comfortable one-hour buffer to an uncomfortable 15 minutes or less.

Check on the status of all circuits. Everything that is on generator does not have to be on UPS. Some circuits may not need emergency power at all. But make doubly sure that those devices that you will rely upon during a disaster are operational, and visibly designate the difference between emergency and normal outlets.

There are any number of horror stories that come from failures in this area. In one facility I inherited, an exterior junction box had been installed so that power could be supplied by a remote source if the backup generator failed. This was a great idea, except that the circuits it was wired to didn’t include any critical equipment. The coffee pot and microwave would have worked; the consoles and transmitters would have not.

In more than one case of which I am aware, fuel pumps of generators were connected to the commercial grid, rather than to the emergency side of the circuits. The result? Once the day tanks ran dry, the facilities went dark, even though there were thousands of gallons of fuel on hand underground. There are also cases where a critical device was switched from one wall plug to another during routine maintenance. This doesn’t sound like a problem, until you realize that the second plug wasn’t on generator power. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess when this was discovered. When it comes to indispensable devices, no maintenance is “routine.”

Transfer switches are also an important part of emergency power supplies, and it’s important to know the means for manually engaging them when they fail. The same is true of UPS bypass switches. Someone on duty should always have access to these controls and be well versed in their operation.

 

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