The 2003 Northeast blackout provided some useful lessons. The following are a few, straight from the trenches.

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Information Needs Better Distribution

Many buildings have fire notification systems (essentially building-wide public address [PA] units), but some fire codes don’t allow their use merely to convey information. Some were not supported by emergency power, making them useless during an outage.

Even where PA systems were used during evacuations, instructions could have been better if employees had been reminded to change to appropriate footwear (e.g., tennis shoes) and use battery-powered light sources (e.g., laptops, PDAs, cell phones) to illuminate their way, instead of candles or cigarette lighters (at least one of which set off a smoke alarm during an evacuation).

Making Evacuation Less Dangerous

Next time you hold a fire drill, do so using only emergency lighting. Include evacuation of simulated handicapped people and children. Be ready to improve your procedures.

Routinely verify the duration (not just startup) of backup batteries in exit, stairwell, corridor, or elevator lighting.

Some building personnel distributed glow sticks for light both during evacuation and for traveling on darkened streets. Unlike batteries, they don’t lose output over time.

In the wake of 9/11, other buildings had added luminescent tape to stairwell sides and steps to provide direction and illumination even after emergency lighting failed. The tapes are “charged” while stairwell lighting is on, and glow for an hour or more.

To increase lighting during an outage, replace incandescent desk lamps with compact fluorescent task lights. When plugged into desktop UPS power, they ran for several hours. Incandescent lights would have drained the UPS in a quarter of that time.

Install elevator control software to sequence power among elevators so each unit is brought down and emptied before emergency power is transferred to the next elevator. The result: no elevator is stuck in transit for more than a few minutes.

Minimizing Economic Damage

Expand generator fuel storage to 24 hours’ worth. If not feasible, retrofit diesels to “fumigated” operation wherein natural gas replaces 80% of the diesel fuel. Conversion kits are available ( that may “stretch” diesel fuel supply by 400% without adding new tank capacity.

For low-rise buildings, store small gasoline-powered generators in strategic locations near critical loads. During an outage, wheel generators outdoors and hook up with long power cords (labeled with load locations and names) running out of windows.

If maintaining refrigeration is crucial (e.g., medicines, lab samples), set up a contract for timely delivery of dry ice during an outage.

Create and test shortcuts to shut down mechanical or chemical processes that could be stopped in midstream (e.g., dry cleaning, metal plating).

When Power Is Being Restored

If you take interruptible power service, prepare to be cut off even if others still have power. It may be necessary to do so to avoid a rolling blackout while restoring power.

You may be called upon to drastically cut load while power is being restored. Create a load triage protocol and a plan to inform those whose loads may be cut.

If you use utility steam for heating or cooling (e.g., absorption chillers), have a backup plan. New York City’s steam system (serving most of Manhattan) lost instrumentation power, causing it to lose pressure that took days to restore, even after power returned.

Add protection to your computers and other sensitive systems (or for the whole building) that can handle a startup power surge when power is restored.

Any office devices (e.g., fax machines, telephones) that hold programmed information (e.g., numbers, messages), should be supported with desktop UPS systems. If not feasible, place a hard copy of the data (and appropriate pages from the device’s instruction manual) in an envelope by each device to allow quick reprogramming.

Does your natural gas utility use electric compressors to maintain line pressure? Most use gas-fired compressors, but electric units may fail, causing boiler and/or stove pilot lights to go out. When pressure is restored, unburned gas could be released, setting off alarms or creating hazards. In food service areas and apartment houses, install a valve that closes automatically when pressure drops and stays closed after pressure is restored, until manually reopened. ES