As a business leader, you are responsible for creating and implementing emergency preparedness plans to protect your business. One of the many threats that your business may face is a blackout – a power outage that occurs over an extended period of time. At first, preparing for a power outage may not seem daunting – your office will be fine without power for several hours. In fact, you and your employees may even enjoy the time away from work. However, if this blackout continues over a period of several days, weeks, or even months, and if it was caused by severe weather in your nearby area, including tornadoes, hurricanes, or flooding – then it becomes a crisis. Are you prepared to keep your employees and business safe without electricity, heat/air conditioning or even suitable drinking water?
Power Outages and Rolling Blackouts
There are many different types of power outages in various ranges of severity. First, there are transient faults, which occur when an area experiences a loss of power for only a few seconds to a few minutes, usually caused by a fault on a power line. Next, there are “brownouts,” which occur when there is a decrease in voltage in an electrical power supply. This phenomenon is named after the dimming effect it has on the area’s lighting. However, it should be noted that brownouts may cause problems with electrical equipment and their operations. Finally, a blackout occurs when an area loses power completely, either due to severe weather or problems with power stations. Blackouts may be mild, fixed in only a few minutes – or can be extremely severe, requiring several weeks of work to restore the power.
The term “rolling blackouts” refers to when power stations shut down areas of the electrical grid in an effort to avoid a complete blackout. Rolling blackouts may occur for numerous reasons, including problems with insufficient power generation (too many people using too much electricity at one time) or are triggered by severe heat waves. Your emergency preparedness plan should include all of these scenarios.
Blackout Preparedness Plans
When preparing for a power outage and creating an emergency preparedness plan, you should first assess your risk. If your business is located in an area that often experiences severe weather – for instance, if you’re located in a tornado-prone area, or if your organization is located along the coast and is at risk for hurricane damage – then you should be aware of the imminent risk of blackouts.
However, whether you are located in an area that is at high-risk for blackouts or not, as a business leader, you are responsible for the creation of a crisis management plan that your business can follow when preparing for a power outage. This plan should address preparation, training, security, emergency supplies, back-up power generators and even recovery operations. Without an emergency preparedness plan, you may find yourself scrambling in the dark – literally.
Protecting Your Company: Crisis Teams and Company Preparation
Form a crisis management team, comprised of your most competent employees, and make sure they are well aware of your emergency preparedness plan for blackouts. It’s not enough to simply have a plan when preparing for a power outage – practice it. Perform tabletop drills and make sure that every member of your team is aware of the parts they must play in order to keep your business and your employees safe.
Because blackouts are often caused by severe weather, they can be sudden and unexpected. Therefore, your crisis management team should be well-organized to help manage the panic that can set in upon sudden power loss. Your emergency preparedness team should be ready and able to communicate with an emergency messaging system that works without the use of external power – this can be through cell phones or radios, anything that isn’t connected to the power grid such as battery, solar, or generator-powered devices.
Additionally, company-wide prevention and emergency preparedness for rolling blackouts may include limiting the use of electricity during the day, particularly the usage of air conditioning or heating. If you are aware that nearby areas have experienced rolling blackouts, there are several things you can do to assist your employees when preparing for a power outage. For example, you could send a company-wide memo warning employees to send important messages early in the day, and not to make calls during peak hours. Additionally, you can also place a message on your phone system with something similar to the following example: “Our area may be experiencing blackouts, and you may be unable to reach us at this number. Here’s another number for you to use,” so that you don’t miss important information during this time.
How to Prepare for Power Loss
In addition to creating a crisis management team and preparing your employees, your emergency preparedness plan should address your electrical equipment when preparing for a power outage. This includes backing up all of your electronic files, ensuring that you have backup batteries for cell phones or laptops, and purchasing back-up power generators (if you don’t have them already). Even if you already have back-up generators, it’s important to research how these generators work, including what they are prepared to power when an outage occurs – and for how long. For instance, some generators may turn on automatically during a blackout, but others may need to be physically turned on.
Additionally, when preparing for a power outage, stay in contact with your property management team and property engineers so that you understand exactly what will happen when a blackout occurs. Will your back-up generators power only the emergency lighting or critical services? If so, you need to consider other pressing emergency preparedness issues, including food safety, power servers that may requiring cooling before overheating, problems with security systems and alarms, and especially communication.
Shelter, Food, Water and Extreme Temperatures
Because your environment may be affected by severe weather, you may have to use the office as a shelter for an extended period of time. If this is the case, your emergency preparedness plan should address food supplies and safe drinking water. Many municipal water systems may not be able to decontaminate drinking water for extended periods of time – so if you and your employees are relying on tap water, it may not be safe to use for cooking, drinking or brushing teeth during an extended power outage.
When preparing for a power outage, particularly an extended blackout, be sure that your business has stocked all of the emergency preparedness supplies that your employees may need during an extended stay, including but not limited to water, food rations, flashlights, first aid kits, prescription medicine, blankets and lanterns.
Additionally, even in the short term, extreme heat or cold can affect the building and your employees. In the case of extreme heat, if your air conditioning is off, you need to do everything you can to reduce this effect on your employees. Make sure that your emergency preparedness plan addresses storing safe drinking water on site so that they don’t suffer from heat illness, heat stroke, dehydration or heat exhaustion. Limit the amount of manual labor that your employees are performing, as you want to try to keep everyone cool. If they can’t stay cool, heat may affect the way that your employees may think – watch out for disturbances and mental friction that often occurs due to hot temperatures.
If the blackout occurs during the winter, your emergency preparedness plan should address exposure to extreme cold for prolonged periods of time, which may cause your employees to panic. Keep your employees as warm as possible by gathering people together and making sure that everyone is wearing enough clothing or can use emergency blankets. Look out for symptoms of hypothermia, frost bite and any sort of shock – and never use alcohol to warm the body, as it decreases the body’s ability to thermo-regulate.
When preparing for a power outage, it is important to be cautious about the creation of carbon monoxide, particularly carbon monoxide caused by back-up generators. For instance, if you and your employees are snowed in during a blackout and are relying on indoor back-up generators, take care that these generators are not placed near a ventilation system, as this could cause carbon monoxide to spread throughout the building. Carbon monoxide is odorless and tasteless, with slow-acting, lethal symptoms – therefore, there is no real warning that your employees are suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.
If you’re using generators or space heaters to heat the building when preparing for a power outage, make sure that you are properly ventilating the generators. Often, smaller companies purchase back-up generators without knowing where to place them safely. Your emergency preparedness plan should include protecting your employees from exposure to carbon monoxide – research how to use the generators or space heaters in your building, because the consequences of carbon monoxide poisoning are lethal. Additionally, never use outdoor grills for heating inside of a building, because the fumes can also be hazardous to your health.
Blackout Recovery Process
Your emergency preparedness plan should address recovery procedures, after the power has been restored to your building. You’ll need to get all of your systems online without risking a power surge. You should also make sure that your building is ready for your employees to return, and that there aren’t electrical hazards that they may need to deal with, which includes downed power lines in the area or other problems. For the most part, your local power company will handle the repair and restoration of your power; however, your emergency preparedness plan should include a waiting period during your recovery time, as these companies may be low on personnel during this time. After a blackout, power companies will send engineers throughout the nearby area to make sure the grid is repaired, which means that you may have to wait your turn for repairs.
For the most part, preparing for a power outage is a waiting game – and your responsibility as a business leader is to keep your business, your crisis management team and the rest of your employees safe while waiting for the power to be restored.