The right technology can help build resiliency to natural disasters

Bill Maginas
Wednesday June 20, 2018
Written by Bill Maginas
In recent years, an unprecedented number of natural disasters threatened  cities and communities throughout the world. The impact of severe weather patterns — from hurricanes to tornados to wild fires — have heightened the importance of proactively planning for expected and unexpected threats. Since it is difficult, if not impossible, to prevent major loss events, the focus should be on mitigating vulnerabilities and ensuring damages are as minimal as possible. This concept, known as “resiliency,” has become an increasing priority for infrastructures and municipalities.

Resiliency enables an infrastructure to anticipate, survive and recover from external disruptions. Upon the sudden impact of a crisis or disaster, resiliency allows systems and processes to restore as quickly as possible without deterring their ability to function or their capacity to act. Ultimately, the goal is to maintain “normalcy.” Resilient systems must meet a range of different requirements that address both preparation and trying to limit damage, and illicit the appropriate response following an event.

The systems should be designed to combat extreme events through improved security and building upgrades that help prevent loss. If loss does occur and operative systems and occupants are at risk, a second layer of protective measures should be in place to help minimize the consequences. This second layer of defence should be designed to detect threats and respond accordingly to prompt backup systems, offer emergency aid and enable warning systems.

A strong first step towards achieving greater resiliency is to conduct an assessment that pinpoints unique challenges and goals that your organization faces. Resilience is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach; the best methods used for one facility may not be the same for the next. Consider how the building is used, common points of stress due to high-trafficked areas, as  well as the natural disasters that are mostly likely to occur in the area. For example, buildings located in regions that face severe hurricanes need to implement different solutions than cities susceptible to droughts and fires. Similarly, critical infrastructures, such as hospitals or power plants, should invest in especially robust systems to help safeguard their technologies that are vital to operations. Through technology and infrastructure upgrades, buildings can take a proactive approach to improving the safety and comfort of its occupants in the wake of an emergency.

Multi-Purpose Lighting Beyond Traditional Uses

Lighting can play an integral role in resiliency during emergency situations because systems are already implemented throughout a building and the surrounding area. This existing infrastructure allows for smart improvements, such as networked LED lights, to be easily added in a cost-effective manner. Cameras, sensors and even gunshot detection devices can be installed on top of connected lights, expanding traditional lighting capabilities. During a hurricane or forest fire for example, using traffic sensors and climate detection, lighting systems can provide an evacuation route for occupants by lighting a path that is less congested and safer from hazards such as flooding, fire or poor air quality. While they may initially seem rudimentary, the intelligent lighting systems available today are a key asset to help improve the speed and safety of evacuations during an emergency. 

Benefits of Voice-Enabled Fire Alarm Systems

Mass notification systems (MNS) can provide a multitude of benefits and can change the way information is communicated during an emergency. Beyond traditional MNS use cases, such as text messages or alerts, a recent, yet important, feature of an integrated MNS is a voice-enabled fire alarm system. In the case of an emergency, addressable notification technology — where every device has a specific address on the system and can communicate with the fire alarm panel — can  be  crucial  in  providing  direction,  minimizing chaos and helping ensure the safety of occupants. Voice fire alarm systems can instantly broadcast information throughout a building and can be programmed to select exactly which speakers are used — and what message is played on them — during an emergency. This helps to guide occupants to safety, depending on where they are located.

In the case of a small isolated event, an individual speaker can be activated to deliver a message in that specific area. In broader emergency situations, groups of speakers can be used to deliver critical evacuation instructions for specific parts of the building based on the nature of the emergency. For example, during a fire, certain areas can be alerted to evacuate using a specific exit, while another floor is advised to safely evacuate the building using a different route to exit.

Mitigating Security Vulnerabilities

When a natural disaster strikes, a building and its operations can be susceptible to threats such as theft or intrusion. Having integrated security systems in place, including surveillance, access control and intruder detection, helps to ensure that infrastructures are not taken advantage of  in their most vulnerable state. For example, access  control  restricts  the  public from accessing sensitive information or assets and can provide an audit trail, which can be valuable to track a malicious insider’s movements inside the facility. If a building closes as a precautionary measure during a natural disaster, security can oversee who enters the building and access remote video surveillance cameras in the area to help ensure there is no suspicious behaviour.  

Strengthening Alternative Power Systems

Resiliency is critical for infrastructures and communities planning to sustain uninterrupted power during an emergency. Investing in components such as generators, energy storage and renewable resources is key for buildings to remain operational during power supply or equipment reliability issues. For instance, distributed energy storage technology can help a municipality stay up and running, regardless of a power outage as it releases stored energy. This allows buildings to continue operations despite a larger community power outage.

HVAC Systems for Operational Stability

Every facility depends on a reliable HVAC system and when a heating or cooling unit fails, it greatly affects the controlled pressurization and temperature of a building and puts operations and occupants at risk. Preparing and planning for an emergency that can cause building wide disruptions is a crucial step in protecting the employees and the assets of the company. Ahead of an emergency, building managers must identify any critical equipment that, if failed, would have the greatest disruptive impact  on operations overall. While some areas of the building may still be able to function without HVAC services, equipment failure can also significantly disrupt operations. Having a plan in place can help minimize the HVAC systems  downtime and get operation back up and running as quickly as possible.

Resiliency in Practice

The expectation of more frequent and destructive disasters can lead organizations to prioritize resiliency over recovery at facilities. This is fuelled by the reality that safety and security is not a guarantee given the diversity, complexity and unpredictability of modern risks. Through technology and infrastructure upgrades, facilities must look beyond traditional emergency preparedness plans to safeguard operations and occupants and stabilize as quickly as possible following an unexpected threat. 


Bill Maginas is area VP and GM, Canada, Johnson Controls (www.johnsoncontrols.com).

This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of SP&T News.

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