Year 2000 plan helps in blackout of 2003
Y2K, the anticipated technology meltdown at the turn of the century, came and went with barely a whimper. But the plan created for the University to handle potential technical difficulties caused by computer glitches came in handy during the largest blackout in U.S. history.
"The Y2K plan helped by telling us which buildings had what kind of thermal load and what we could generate from that," says Rich Robben, director of Plant Operations. "Plus we knew from it which buildings were priorities for power, so that we could know where to send electricity from the Central Power Plant."
The Central Power Plant (CPP) uses steam to generate approximately 50 percent of the electricity needed for the central and medical campuses. Other electricity is supplied by outside vendors, including DTE. In day-to-day operations CPP provides electrical services to 130 buildings, plus heat and hot water to nearly 100 campus locations. In an emergency, such as the blackout, the supply of electricity can be manually diverted to facilities that need it the most, including the hospitals in the U-M Health System and laboratories with animals or temperature-sensitive research materials. The Y2K plan had identified all of those critical areas and established a priority order.
"I think the success in handling the blackout was because of good planning, and from people stepping up and doing extra work or their own jobs in an exemplary way," says Kitty Bridges, executive director of Information Technology Central Services. Her area's responsibilities during the blackout were to make sure telephone service remained available in residence halls, the hospital and in designated emergency operations centers, and to keep the Web site up. Although people on campus and in the local area were not able to access the site, it had to remain available for communication to faculty, staff, students and parents not affected by the blackout, she says. "The Arbor Lakes data center that houses e-mail and Web services remained up throughout the outage," Bridges says.
For the most part, the emergency plan worked well, says Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Tim Slottow. There were lessons to be learned from the event, however, which he says will result in some adjustments to the plan. Areas needing to be addressed include:
• The need for more permanent generators in areas not serviced by CPP. Robben says portable generators had to be hauled to places like the North Ingalls building to protect research. The building is not on the CPP grid, and it suffered damage to the transformer that was linked to its power;
• Consideration for the length of an emergency in terms of backup generators. Bridges says the power needed to keep phone systems up was designed for an emergency with a 4-8 hour duration. She says much time was spent moving generators around to various locations to keep systems running;
• University Housing will look into a more reliable battery-operated communications system. Alan Levy, director of public affairs, says the loss of cell phone signals and landlines in non-emergency areas, which was a region-wide problem during the blackout, meant that staff in Housing could not communicate well as they went about the task of determining how to take care of some 500 students still in residence halls, plus many others living in family housing;
• Areas need to be identified for people to rest and provisions for food to sustain them need to be considered. High voltage electricians and other essential staff were on the job for many hours, says Hank Baier, associate vice president for facilities and operations. Since safety is of the utmost importance at U-M, he says, it is important to provide them periods of rest. But there weren't facilities available. Additionally, he says food became an issue because everything was closed;
• Some areas will attempt to better define who are essential and non-essential personnel. Slottow, Levy and Robben say the response from U-M staff members was phenomenal, with many people returning to campus after putting in a day's work without being asked. In some cases, however, people who did not need to come to campus showed up, and others who might have been helpful stayed away, not knowing what to do.
U-M's total cost for the blackout is estimated at $2.5 million dollars, Baier says. This includes costs of personnel to get the power back up and to inspect every building. Soon after the blackout, staff members systematically checked each building to make sure people were not stuck on elevators, and they returned to most locations afterward to make sure there were no problems caused by going back on line.
For residence halls, this meant Housing facilities personnel had to check hot and cold water, ventilation systems and card reader security access, Levy says. The Department of Public Safety and fire alarm shop also had to check all fire alarms before students could move back into their halls.
Baier says costs also included damage to some equipment, extra security personnel, spoiled food, and manually removing and then restoring University's electrical grid on the central and medical campuses from the regional power grid.
Related story: U-M staff and faculty rise to the occasion during blackout>