Don't monkey around when planning for widespread power failure!

How often do you think about your business’ electricity supply when you switch on your computer in the morning, or turn the lights off at night?

What would you do if your workplace power supply was lost for 24 hours, what about 48hrs, what about a week?

In this post, we will examine what the widespread loss of power might look like, what it means for businesses, and how you can minimise the impact on your business critical operations.

Here in the UK, we are lucky enough to benefit from very reliable infrastructure to bring power into our homes and workplaces. But our power supply is not infallible, and the widespread loss of power for a prolonged period is a very real possibility that every business should have a plan to deal with.

In fact, the UK Government rates widespread electricity failure as being one of the highest priority risks for national level emergency planning, in the same category as a catastrophic terrorist attack or pandemic flu outbreak. So loss of electricity supply is not a risk to be ignored!

Like all modern infrastructure, the power network in the UK is a complex system, and the companies that operate and use it invest a lot of money into keeping our supply in good shape and ensuring they can fix problems as quickly as possible. But problems still occur. In December 2013 for example, storm damage saw 1 million properties lose power supply for at least 24 hours, some 16,000 were not reconnected for 48 hours.

The 2013 storm damage is not the most extreme scenario by far. In the (admittedly low likelihood) of a total failure of the UK power network, the industry has to initiate what is known as a ‘black start’ process to get restart the network. This can take five days, with some areas potentially without power for weeks as repairs are made to the network’s infrastructure.

In addition to these high end scenarios, there are power cuts for a whole host of reasons every day, right across the UK.

But what does all this mean for your business?

Let’s take a look at what might happen in a prolonged outage affecting your business and the surrounding area.

Obviously, all mains powered equipment in a workplace would cease to function - that includes the obvious like our computers, coffee machines, internet routers and TVs. But power outage will also knock out things like powered phone systems or switchboards, heating/cooling systems, CCTV, etc. Many electronically powered locks and alarms would go into a failsafe mode, reducing site security.  

Over the course of a few hours, many businesses can deal with this sort of disruption with access to laptops, mobile phones etc commonplace for those based in offices.

But after several hours, laptop and mobile phone batteries will drain, and many businesses will grind to a halt.  

The impacts on the wider area can be just as disruptive - traffic lights, ATMs, shop tills, petrol pumps etc will all only have a finite level of backup power and in a relatively short amount of time it becomes very difficult for any business to operate. The same goes for public transport networks, hospitals, schools…the list of affected sectors is endless.

The emergency services and government agencies work very closely with the power industry to ensure that such power supply failures don’t lead to the total breakdown of society in affected areas, but their focus will always be on ensuring access is maintained to healthcare, food, cash and other essential services.

Keeping businesses running will be way down the list of priorities in the short term, and every minute a business is offline, it is losing potential income, losing the ability to connect with its customers, and potentially losing business critical data and infrastructure.

So what can businesses do to minimise the impacts of prolonged power failure?

Whether you are a sole trader, or a large corporation, the principles are essentially the same. Here are some of the key questions we think you should be answering when planning for this sort of disruption:

 

  • Premises -  Are there alternative sites your teams could work from, outside of the area affected by the outage? Can your staff work from home? Is there another business you could share premises with on a temporary basis? Could you install a backup generator/battery power at your premises?

  • Communications - Do you have non powered or mobile phones to use as a backup for your switchboard? Do you have a plan to notify key suppliers and customers if your normal communications channels are down? Do you have backup email provision that does not rely on your servers?
  • IT infrastructure - Are your servers protected from electrical damage? Do you have dedicated power supplies? Have you considered virtual infrastructure located at a protected site?

  • People - How will your staff get to/from work? How will you account for lost working days in your HR records? How will you manage if staff are absent if schools have to close?

  • Supply chains - What are your suppliers plans for power outage? Can you still make and receive goods/services using non electrical systems and processes?

Although a prolonged and widespread power outage is unlikely, any power failure has the ability to quickly cause significant disruption to any business affected by it and businesses need to ensure they plan for this potentially significant disruption.

And if you are affected by a power outage, whilst you are putting in place your well rehearsed emergency plans, spare a thought for the people of Kenya, whose power supply was knocked out for several hours this week by a misbehaving monkey (the monkey was fine by the way). Always prepare for the unexpected!

 

Rob Doran is the Owner and Director of Black Dog Crisis Management, helping businesses, businesses, the emergency services and the voluntary sector prepare for, respond to and recover from emergencies, big or small.