How Your Association Can Minimize Risk During Power Outages and Blackouts

Posted on Monday July 10, 2017

Nothing proves how reliant we are on electricity faster than losing it! But it’s bound to happen at some point, and preparation for it is the best defense. For your high-rise residents, a blackout can be a short-term nuisance. For your community association, it can be a major headache in terms of risk management, safety and equipment damage that can provide an unwelcome shock to your budget.
Vincent Rapolla is the FirstService Residential property manager at 77 Hudson Condominium Association, a luxury high-rise in Jersey City, New Jersey. He believes that a blackout can also be a great time for learning. “I'm an eternal optimist. At a previous property I worked at, the association had lost power for over eight hours during Hurricane Sandy,” he said. “The association was actively in the engineering stages of a new generator replacement, and the blackout actually brought to light what items weren't on the new generator. Upgrades to that new generator allowed for the domestic water pumps to be added to it, providing at least some level of comfort during a blackout.”
Most of the time, blackouts and lesser outages can’t be predicted, so it’s important that preparation is constant and consistent – there’s no blackout season! Read on for information about the basics of blackouts, things to do in the event of one and how you can plan, just in case.

Blackout versus brownout?

A blackout is total power loss to a building or property. Partial power losses are considered brownouts, but a community can have both! If the property has multiple buildings and one loses power completely, that’s a blackout in the building, but to the power company, it’s a brownout for the property as a whole.
Blackouts can be planned or unexpected. Planned blackouts generally happen during the times of highest strain on the system, such as July and August in New Jersey. “We don’t see them often, but we do get the occasional rolling brownout during the hottest parts of the summer,” Rapolla said. “When they are planned, the local news does an excellent job of making sure we all know in plenty of time.”
Emergency blackouts can be caused by transformer fires, power lines downed by heavy storms, car accidents and lightning strikes. Rapolla said that, around Jersey City, many power lines are buried, so flooding can cause outages as well by affecting both those lines and the substations in the area. “Most of the unplanned power outages we see are during hurricane season, nor’easter and heavy snow storms,” he said.
What should your high-rise association do if you lose power?
In the event of power failure, and its sudden return, high-rise building systems can be damaged if they aren’t shut down properly. It’s important to take the right actions to minimize the risk of damage.
  • In a high-rise, all water pumps and boilers need to be shut down manually after the power goes out. Otherwise, they will push water through at high pressure when the power is restored, and that water will blow into units through the plumbing and cause a lot of damage.
  • If your building has a negative air pressure situation and you have roof fans, shut the fans down manually. If you don’t, you will have a problem if they come back on instantly.
  • Unplug and shut down all electronics and electrically operated systems, including the elevators to minimize the risk of systems shorting out.
  • Call for an electrician to be available onsite when power is restored. Despite the best efforts, there can still be damage somewhere and it’s important to address it quickly and professionally.
Make sure that all doormen and other front-line staff have access to a printed list of residents who may need assistance, or have special medical equipment that requires power. It’s important to start checking on people, going door to door if needed, to find out who needs help.

How can you plan ahead for blackouts? 

Let’s talk about planning for a blackout. What kinds of things should you do ahead of time to minimize the risk to your community and protect your budget?
  • Create an emergency kit – Stock your high-rise with a kit that includes glow sticks, bottled water, non-perishable food, flashlights, batteries, reflective vests for valet or parking garage staff and traffic cones if you need to redirect traffic in the event of a power loss.
  • Make sure everything works – Affix stairwells with glow-in-the-dark tape. Because that can stop glowing over time, check it on a regular basis. Consider having small generators or large battery packs on hand for charging mobile phones and rechargeable batteries. Fire them up regularly to make sure everything is in working order. In addition to checking your community’s emergency power supply sources, make sure food, batteries and first aid kits aren’t expired and replace when necessary. “Our generators are minimal, meant to run one elevator and security lights,” Rapolla said. “We check them constantly to make sure they are in working order.”
Rapolla said his building is beginning to conduct load tests on the generator to make sure that all the fire safety equipment will have necessary power in the event of a blackout. The building also contains a seismic holding tank about the size of a swimming pool. That can serve as a reserve tank for the fire safety systems.
  • Define roles and delegate ahead of time – It’s important that all staff know their roles in an emergency, what to do and how to do it. A comprehensive written plan, built with input from management, maintenance and other building or community staff, is essential. Print your plan and post it where all staff can access it quickly in an emergency. Knowing what to do makes emergency response go more smoothly and also helps calm staff, which in turn calms residents.
  • Drill and test – Conduct blackout drills. Test response times. See what gets overlooked, and update the plan for the future. Make sure the right staff are handling the best tasks for them in a crisis. Repeat as needed.
  • Communicate to residents – “When we lose power, we lose water pressure,” Rapolla explained. “All the information that goes out before major storms tells people to fill up their bathtub and use the water to flush toilets, but not how to do that. I found a great video on YouTube that shows how. We sent that video link, along with other emergency information, to all of our residents. It was unbelievable how much they appreciated that simple tip.”
As a weather event that can cause a blackout approaches, Rapolla and his team send frequent communications to residents, modified to suit the type of event and including weather updates from nationally-recognized weather services. “With technology today, including the FirstService Residential Resident Alert system, we can provide updates to residents as well as reminders of what systems in the building are operable, if any, during a blackout,” he said. “No one likes to be in the dark, but if we can at least let them know the facts of the matter it prevents a slew of questions and extra work.” In order for this to be effective, he makes sure that all resident contact information is regularly updated in the FirstService Residential Connect system
  • Ask for professional assistance – Your municipal, county or state emergency management teams may be able to provide guidance in creating a blackout plan and other emergency response plans. They know your area and your climate. A professional community association management company with local expertise will also be able to tap into resources that will help your community be prepared for emergencies as well.
Emergencies happen. Good preparation and planning can help lessen the disruption of a blackout and other emergencies in your high-rise community. 

For more about how a professional property management company can help your high-rise plan for emergencies, contact FirstService Residential, New Jersey’s leading community association management company.

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