Our world has become highly reliant upon the availability of continuous power. As a result, almost every company needs to have a power failure response strategy in place. Very few businesses can operate effectively in the event of a sustained outage or blackout as was witnessed during the “Northeast blackout of 2003.” The outage, which affected 55 million people in the USA and Canada, serves as a powerful reminder of the potential consequences of power loss and the collateral effect on water supply, transportation, communications and industry.
Almost all business continuity planning addresses the IT element of business services, but without a strategy for dealing with all aspects of a business during and after a power failure, the overall planning may be resting on a very shaky foundation. To build a strong and realistic plan, consider these three steps: First, understand and document the potential causes of failure including the technical reasons; second define which systems and processes need to remain in operation in order to limit losses and protect production, reputation and/ or life accordingly; and third develop and rehearse a plan.
Start by assessing where the threat to power security might arise. The causes of failure can emanate from a variety of different sources, from utility failure to component failures within power infrastructure, natural disasters, installation design issues, human error and, of-course, the global problem of terrorism and cyber security attacks. Once threats are fully identified and chronicled, you can then turn your attention to strategies to mitigate their risk.
For example, any company located in an area with power quality issues can be prone to component failures when sensitive electronic equipment in the production area or data center isn’t fully protected from even minor disturbances in the power supply voltage, current and frequency. Electronic components can fail prematurely if the power supply is outside of its rated range, so the question becomes how you maintain and test in order to reduce failures. We will provide some pointers to maintenance regimes in a later blog post.
In prioritizing the aspects of business or services that need to keep operating in an emergency situation remember that there may be an occasion when a complete loss of power is not preceded by some hint of what is about to happen, meaning that planning should accommodate the worst of circumstances. Also, in assessing risk, think about what happens after the initial event; sometimes a disaster is started by a relatively minor incident. There can be uncontrolled collateral damage when an incident spirals out of control to have a wider impact on things such as business reputation, liability and customer satisfaction. For example, the Northeast blackout was started by some buggy energy management software!
Finally, as you build your strategy, think about how people are going to behave in the various circumstances you predict. While a lot of emergency procedures and processes can be automated at a machine level, unless you’re running a complete lights-out facility, people are going to need to be involved in your power failure response strategy.
People, of-course, will behave differently according to the situations they’re in. Someone who is perfectly level headed dealing with a cyber security hack may be a very different person in the face of a tornado! Part of the answer to that is to make training and rehearsal an essential part of the strategy. In an emergency, it is muscle memory reflexes that can help to minimize the consequences of a disaster.
When it comes to building muscle memory, I use the analogy of Mr. Miyagi schooling young Daniel in the movie, Karate Kid. You may remember in the film how Miyagi had his pupil polishing the car (wax on, wax off) and cleaning windows, so that when he got into the ring, his body moved instinctively. That’s the secret, because there won’t be time to think.
Planning should encompass routines for the recovery of normal business operations, post outage; there are always ramifications as equipment not prioritized as mission critical during a power cut is brought back online. A good resource to help you get started building a strategy to protect your organization during and after a power failure, is Schneider Electric white paper #5: “A Practical Guide to Disaster Avoidance in Mission-Critical Facilities.”