Planning enables central stations to survive Sandy

Despite widespread power and phone outages, redundancy helps central stations weather the storm

Nothing sets off alarms like a natural disaster and Hurricane Sandy, which slammed the East Coast late last month was an example of the power of central station monitoring response in action. But for the most part, monitoring centers responded well to the call to action.

“We got killed by traffic,” said James McMullen, president and COO of COPS Monitoring, one of the nation’s largest monitoring service providers. COPS is headquartered right at the heart of the storm in Williamstown, N.J., but has operations in Arizona, Florida, Tennessee and Texas, in addition to its New Jersey headquarters. Those monitoring centers proved lifesavers.

During and after Hurricane Sandy, the work floor at most Northeastern central stations looked like Christmas morning with lights flashing, bells ringing and workers scurrying about to answer all the requests coming in. The storm, which battered the East Coast, made landfall near Atlantic City. Sandy, exacerbated by high tides and high winds and a cold front coming from the west, dumped ungodly amounts of rain and water on all the cities in the Northeast. Hardest hit were areas like Philadelphia, New York, Hartford and Boston. But Hurricane Sandy’s impact was felt as far inland as Cleveland, Ohio where power outages were commonplace, trees were toppled and alarms rang constantly at monitoring centers and even in Chicago, where Lake Michigan recorded 20-foot-plus waves.

“If anyone says they didn’t have problems ask them if they know the meaning of BS,” McMullen challenged. Response times skyrocketed from 20 seconds to over six minutes in some locations. However, everyone knew the situation was critical. McMullen gratefully recalled several dealers who told them simply to log reports and not respond. Towns like Beach Haven, N.J. were underwater. Even police were not responding.

President Obama declared swaths of New Jersey, New York and the mid-Atlantic disaster areas. Reed Exposition postponed the ISC East trade event planned for the week due to the State of Emergency declared by New York’s governor and the potential danger presented by Sandy. Yet most central stations, while chaotic, remained operational.

“Things went well but that’s a relative term,” said Pamela J. Petrow, CEO of Vector Security, based in Pittsburgh. Like other firms with multiple locations, traffic was rolled out of New Jersey and to offices in western Pennsylvania and Ohio. Workers had plenty of notice and the office building at Cape May Courthouse, N.J., was boarded up in advance of the storm. Vehicles were moved out of low, flood-prone parking lots to higher ground.

“Our centrals all are redundant. We moved all of our calls out of the affected area,” Petrow said.

Downed trees and flooded areas prevented trucks from getting everywhere they wanted to be. In some areas, police stopped taking calls for any issue other than fire, EMS or similar life safety.

“All key holders were notified,” Petrow added.

While COPS was in the heart of the storm, having multiple locations allowed them, too, to move alarm receiver traffic to Arizona and Florida. Their mainframe computer in New Jersey was backed up in Las Vegas.

Every central station has battery back-up and on-site power generators to assure they remain up and running in the face of a disaster. Complete Security Systems, based in Marlboro, N.J., closed its office during the storm and they remained closed for several days after the storm came through.

“It was busy but we are the storm troopers,” said Morgan Hertel, vice president of operations for Syracuse, N.Y.-based Rapid Response Monitoring. Rapid Response handled almost one million alarms in the critical 24 hours of the storm.

“We were prepared,” Hertel said. At the peak of the storm Rapid Response had between 150 and 160 workers. They are fortunate in having headquarters in Syracuse. Although they serve a nationwide customer base, the Syracuse station was not seriously affected by the storm and there was no need to roll operations to a different location.

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