Power Struggle

DECEMBER 2010 and the beginning of 2011 have taught the electronic security industry a hard lesson – the importance of power supplies to the operation of security solutions during emergencies. When we think of threats to our sites, things like robbery, terrorism and fire quickly spring to mind.

But monitoring stations in Brisbane say loss of power was the key problem they faced during the floods. For an entire week thousands of homes and businesses lost alarm monitoring services as their backup batteries failed.

Typically, an alarm system has backup power to continue operation for 24 hours after power fail - this varies but not by a great deal. The end result is that properties that lose mains power will lose their fire and burglar alarm protection within a day.

Energex started turning off power as flood waters surged down the Brisbane River and ultimately up to 100,000 homes and businesses were without power, most for up to a week. There was also significant loss of power supply in Far North Queensland when Category 5 Cyclone Yasi struck in early February.

Yasi had a massive core 500km in diameter and while it missed the major centres of Cairns and Townsville, Tully, Dunk Island and Mission Beach were badly damaged, with 175,000 homes losing power and communications.

No less challenging was the impact of the Christchurch earthquake at the end of last month. As sedimentary sands and shales liquefied during the powerful seismic shock, there was significant damage to infrastructure, including power supplies, telephone poles and pits, and mobile phone towers.  

Around 80 per cent of homes lost power after the earthquake and Kiwi energy supplier Orion made slow progress restoring services as a result of network and road damage. At the same time, Telecom, Vodafone and 2degrees worked hard to repair networks and to get around the single biggest problem mobile phone sites faced as a result of the earthquake – yes - loss of power. This involved the use of generators as a stop gap until lines could be repaired.  

From the perspective of electronic security solutions, in all cases it seems that the loss of power is the key issue our systems face when infrastructure is damaged or destroyed during major natural disasters.
Graded monitoring stations with backup power supplies and comprehensive facilities fared reasonably well in Brisbane. Those that lost mains power simply switched over to generator and battened the hatches.

But it’s the end user systems in the field that are at greatest risk and while it’s tempting to throw up our collective hands in the face of acts of nature, serious thought should be given to preparing systems to function as well as possible, and as long as possible, when power is lost.

There are a number of ways to address the issues and they vary depending on system size. For basic alarm systems and access control solutions, increasing battery sizes and adding small solar panels would mean alarm systems could handle power loss for longer periods. Importantly, such a solution would not be particularly expensive.

Larger public surveillance systems which would be of real use to police and emergency services during major disasters need to supported, too. In such cases UPS support would be a real benefit but most UPS solutions are designed to handle only an hour or 2 or power outage at most. That means small generators need to be considered.

Large industrial, commercial and defence installations are no less vulnerable to natural disaster. Security managers and integrators should seriously think about support power – even if only to a skeleton system – allowing retention of key functionalities in the event of widespread power loss.

You want fire alarm reporting, some access control, control of gates, some intrusion detection and CCTV cameras enough to allow general monitoring of your facility and support of manpower and emergency services teams. In a world awash with electricity, it’s easy to forget that the greatest threat to all electronic and networked security systems is power loss. The time to recognise that fact is now.

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