Who’s got your back?
In mid-July, an underground fire turned the lights out on block after block
in downtown Vancouver. The outage, which affected an estimated 20 per cent
of the downtown core, according to media reports, lasted for about three
August 15, 2008 By Kathleen Sibley
Many Vancouver-area businesses might not have paid too much attention
to the systems that keep their security applications up and running
before the blackout, but chances are they will now. Because while it’s
one thing to have a state-of-the art security system that can keep
every corner of your operations covered 24×7, when the lights go out —
and they will — what happens next? Ideally, it’s a smooth transition
from the grid-supplied source to the backup power system you built
into your security system design. But making that smooth transition
happen requires a combination of equipment, knowledge and testing, say
"A lot of security professionals can say they have seen systems that
don’t have backup power, and that is a serious vulnerability with any
security system," says Adam Storms, a security analyst at Alberta
Electric System Operator (AESO) in Calgary.
Fortunately for the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, which was also
affected by the outage, backup power was not an issue. Both Canada
Place, one of the port’s cruise ship terminals, and its head office,
were without BC Hydro-supplied electricity for about 40 hours, says
Melanie Costley, Vancouver Fraser Port Authority’s senior manager
security, operations and security. It could have been much worse, but
even so, "the city was completely taken off guard," says Costley.
The port switched to backup power as soon as the lights went off, with
no camera coverage lost. The required video cameras continued to
function, as did its communications radios, she says. Even the cruise
ship scheduled to depart that day went out on time. Coincidentally,
the port was scheduled for a fill up of its diesel-power backup
generator on July 14, the day of the outage.
Backup systems are generally either battery-based storage systems that
convert DC power from batteries to AC power, fossil-fuel-based
generators, or a combination of both. UPS (uninterruptible power
supply) systems maintain a continuous source of energy between
connected devices by supplying power from a separate source when the
grid goes down, thereby protecting against power surges and temporary
Rob Moore, national sales manager for Vancouver-based Alpha
Technologies, which sells backup power products for security equipment
including cameras, access control devices, DVR, explosive/metal
detector machines and environmental sensors, says UPS systems provide
a longer run time than most typical backup solutions. Many security
equipment manufacturers strongly recommend the use of UPS systems
because they prevent the equipment damage or video loss that can occur
with power fluctuations or disruptions, he says.
UPS, he explains, provides power conditioning and line conditioning to
manage through short-term fluctuations that in some areas happen on a
daily basis. California, for example, experiences a large number of
brownouts. "A regular battery system wouldn’t do that; a UPS is always
Alpha, which focuses on ruggedized outdoor equipment for the harsh
Canadian environment, is currently in the midst of implementing backup
power systems for perimeter intrusion systems being used to monitor
foot traffic in authorized personnel-only areas at a number of U.S.
airports. It is also supplying the backup power systems to various
port authorities for their container traffic monitoring applications.
Obviously, maintaining security is tantamount at a border, but not just to keep terrorist and criminal activity at bay.
"If (a port is) not able to process the containers, the whole port shuts down," notes Moore.
Other typical security applications that require backup power systems
are "things that pop out of the ground or gates that come down," he
says. Imagine, for example, the prospect of being on wrong side of an
electronically powered gate in a prison or locked in an underground
parking lock overnight.
These days, says Moore, Alpha’s sales are being driven by a combination
of the business world’s increasing reliance on mission-critical
applications and extreme weather conditions, courtesy of global
"It’s becoming more evident there are these extreme weather conditions;
it’s not a rare occurrence anymore, and that alerts people to the fact
they can’t do without backup solutions," he says.
Some organizations, such as the City of Toronto, see climate change as
the impetus to explore alternative energy sources for backup solutions.
Walter Chan, supervisor, corporate security, security and life safety
at the city, says Toronto, like many North American municipalities,
got its wake-up call in August 2003, when the lights went out across
large swaths of the mid-eastern U.S. and Ontario.
The blackout motivated the city to take a closer look at how it was
handling backup power for its security applications, and to see how
those solutions could be integrated into its efforts to become a
greener, more environmentally-friendly municipality.
One step was to take a look at using solar power for backup security
applications. The other was to adopt the most recent industry standard
— the National Fire Protection Association’s 731 standard for the
application, location, installation, performance, testing, and
maintenance of electronic premises security systems and their
"That was really the driving factor for us when we’re installing new
electronic products," says Chan. "We said let’s not just make our own
standard, let’s look at the industry standard."
To meet its goal of becoming greener and leaner, at least energy
consumption-wise, the city is developing with an unnamed vendor a
prototype solar-powered backup solution for security applications at a
water treatment plant.
"We’re not ready to go full-blown with it until we see how well it
works in addressing the initial intent of the security feature, in
that we have a video application covering a large area of a treatment
plant," says Chan.
Climate change is also a consideration for the City of Ottawa, says
Greg Dack, a corporate security analyst for the city. But while
Canadians might worry more about Mother Nature than Al Quaeda causing
the lights to go out these days, the threat still exists, he notes.
"If someone wanted to target a municipality within Canada, one of the
things they’d probably want to target is the electrical grid and knock
out the ability to respond to (emergencies)," says Dack.
When the lights do go out — and then come back on under backup power —
chances are you’ll be faced with deciding which applications get
priority. Such decisions are best made in advance, rather than in a
dimly lit office after the fact. For the City of Ottawa, says Dack, the
security operations centre and the perimeter get top priority, as do
life safety devices such as heat detectors.
If your organization is at the initial stage of choosing a backup
system, it’s important to find a vendor whose product and services not
only meet your current needs, but exceed them for future expansion,
advises AESO’s Storms.
"Generally speaking, a lot of good security systems I’ve worked with
have UPS backup power for a maximum of four to six hours," says
Storms. "Going longer requires a larger number of batteries that
become much more expensive, so the bigger your requirement, the more
money you’re going to spend."
Figuring out who is responsible for maintaining the backup system is
also an issue that needs to be sorted out, says Dave Boroevich,
vice-president of marketing at Alpha Technologies.
"The person who owns the application that needs to be supported needs
to raise the question of what’s going to happen to my
mission-critical application if we don’t have power," he says. There’s
no standard answer to whose responsibility it is, he adds – it could
be IT, facilities or the security manager. And while it’s up to the
application owners to raise the issue, security VARS also have a huge
role to play in increasing awareness, he says.
"Over time we’re seeing a growing industry of security VARs who are
bringing their expertise to the table and proactively demonstrating to
business it’s a critical issue, and if they are serious about their
business, they need to be serious about backing it up."
Storms agrees, noting that Vancouver’s recent experience should
illustrate the importance of being prepared — and conducting monthly
testing to make sure your backup systems work as they are supposed to
— before you need them.
"Every day that goes by, infrastructure in North America gets older
and it’s human nature not to change something until an adverse event
Kathleen Sibley is a Toronto-based freelance writer.
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