Hurricane Irene

Irene was battering eastern North Carolina shortly before noon on August 27, 2011, when the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite took this picture. At 11:00 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time on August 27, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) warned that the Category 1 hurricane was centered about 50 miles west of Cape Hatteras, N.C. The storm had maximum sustained winds of 85 miles per hour.

By 11:00 p.m. EDT on August 28, Irene had lost significant power. The storm was a post-tropical cyclone centered about 50 miles north of Berlin, N.H. Although the storm largely spared big cities, it still left millions without electricity and claimed at least two dozen lives, the Associated Press reported.

NASA image courtesy of Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response,NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Caption by Michon Scott.

While hurricane Irene put 11 states in emergency mode, central stations and security installers suffered varying degrees of damage to their facilities and operations, but all the while ensuring their customers got the support they needed.

Events like Hurricane Irene demand flexibility. When planning its strategy, C.O.P.S Monitoring had to switch focus from its Florida station to its New Jersey central station, which ended up taking a direct hit from the storm. In addition to C.O.P.S.’ Williamstown, N.J. headquarters, it also has redundant operations with central stations in Arizona, Florida, and Tennessee.

“What we typically do when we know weather like this is coming is overstaff our other central stations,” said David Smith, director of marketing and communication at C.O.P.S. “Not only does weather increase alarm traffic, but it could also make it difficult for employees to come to the central station in the affected areas. Early on, the forecasts showed the hurricane might affect our Florida central station, which is the more common location for a hurricane to hit. We had made preparations ahead of time to overstaff New Jersey, Arizona, and Tennessee, but instead it went up the coast and through New Jersey so we switched the plan by overstaffing Florida, Arizona, and Tennessee locations instead.”

The company’s year to date average high priority alarm response time is 16.2 seconds. On Saturday, August 27, C.O.P.S. maintained its 16.2 second response time despite a 37 percent increase in high priority alarms and a 43 percent increase in lower priority signals. On Sunday, C.O.P.S. sustained a high priority response time of 18.5 seconds even with an increase of alarm traffic of over 2.2 times and more than double the average number of lower priority signals.

“We’ve done the same thing before,” Smith noted. “While this storm is rightfully getting a lot of press and attention because it has impacted so many people, there have been other damaging weather events that we’ve successfully dealt with. For instance, the record-breaking Nor’easters last year impacted the Northeast and other severe storms all required the same preparations. Our philosophy on that is that no matter where we put a central station, there are going to be possible Acts of God like tornadoes, earthquakes, fires, or hurricanes or even something man-made that can occur that has the potential to impede a central station’s service or prevent their dispatchers from traveling to work.  We feel we owe to our dealers to be prepared for that contingency and it big part of the reason we operate four strategically located central load-sharing stations. Since all our central stations are interconnected, we can staff other central stations to pick up the increased alarm traffic.”

Smith continued, “Our headquarters is right in between Philadelphia and Atlantic City, where the hurricane’s center of land fall occurred for the second time. You can’t get much closer to a direct hit on our central station than that — we were right on the western eye wall of the hurricane.”

Today, however, C.O.P.S. is “back to business as usual,” Smith said. “Another part of our redundancy and reliability plan is that we maintain two additional off-site automation service platforms in a data facility in Nevada, so if something were to happen to our automation system locally we have hot-redundant copies of the database offsite that we can securely access from any of our sites.”

Last November C.O.P.S. Monitoring contracted with Zumasys, a solutions provider for disaster recovery, server virtualization, and centralized storage, to deploy C.O.P.S. fourth and fifth automation system mainframes in a highly secure off-site mega data center, called the SuperNAP (network access provider), in Las Vegas. The additional servers will supplement C.O.P.S’ three redundant mainframes located in its New Jersey headquarters.

The SuperNAP is a 407,000 square foot computing facility made of steel reinforced concrete, protected by armed guards, accessible via multiple communications providers, and backed up by five custom-built power generators.

“In addition to the ability to monitor our dealers’ alarms from any of our strategically located central stations, we can also process signals from our mainframes located at the SuperNAP,” stated Jim McMullen, president and chief operating officer of C.O.P.S. Monitoring. “We’re sparing no expense when it comes to our ability to provide essential monitoring services. The great thing is that all of our dealers, regardless of size, benefit from our mission to be the most consistent and reliable service provider in the industry.”

Richard Haig, president and chief executive officer at Haig Service Corp., shared that though the company is dealing with high call volumes and a reduced staff today, its facility suffered no damages from the hurricane. “We’re on a lower level in Green Brook, N.J.,” he said. “But Bound Brook [an immediate neighbor] is currently a lake. We’ve been in the same location for nearly 25 years and never had an issue. That’s the reason we stay here.”

Haig continued, “We did take a lot of precautions. We have servers on site here and offices in Clearwater and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., with redundant servers. Our IT resides in Connecticut and we were moving data and taking images of disks and getting backup servers ready to take over. We were prepared should Jersey be buried or Connecticut buried, or whatever.”

Haig added, “During the storm, I was in the office working with our vice president of IT to make sure all the data was backed up. We were as safe as could be and had contingency plans.

“It didn’t look bad — a lot of wind, a lot of rain but the storm itself was not the issue. It’s the result of the storm — the fallen trees, the fallen lines. Even people who weren’t necessarily affected are facing power loss while repairs happen. The issue is really power and flood. We’re still seeing the water cresting. Bound Brook will be cresting later tonight. Other areas nearby will crest tomorrow. We do a lot of schools, for example, and many haven’t seen the worst of the problem yet.”

Haig partners with several central stations and didn’t see any issues arise over the weekend. “All of our central stations seemed to handle everything that came in,” Haig said. “Most of them have redundancies in other geographic regions. We work with C.O.P.S., Rapid [Response] and Criticom, all who have redundancy. We got communication from all of the central stations in advance saying they were expecting problems and were going to prioritize calls and signal types. They were well prepared. I guess we had a nice test with the earthquake.”

At Haig, the company is facing some staffing issues and some of its employees are unable to make it to work due to being in water-locked areas. “There’s an overwhelming demand for service. Most people are calling in and wondering why their systems are beeping when they don’t have power. We give the same -answer about a thousand times and put people on the queue for a service call.”

Stephanie Hayes, dispatch manager at Haig, commented that the service department is working hard to keep up with calls from customers. “We’re a little bombarded returning calls for power failures.” 

The company did send out technicians over the weekend, but “not during the worst of the hurricane,” Hayes said. “And a lot of them were underwater — so we had limited resources. We had some water damage issues as well as power failures, which was around 90 percent of what we dealt with.”

Some previously scheduled service calls are being moved this week to attend to more immediate cases. Thankfully, “everybody’s being pretty accommodating,” Hayes noted.

At Atlantic Coast Alarm, Mays Landing, N.J., Irene posed serious challenges in staffing for the company’s UL-listed central station. “There were a lot of evacuations where our dispatchers were located,” said president, Andrew Toner. “So we rented a hotel room and we also set up cots [in our offices] for those employees that couldn’t go home. When they couldn’t go to the hotel room, they stayed here. We had three or four dispatchers on at any given time. We also brought in food and snacks so they didn’t have to run out.”

Toner added, “All my dispatchers were exceptional. One of them was here for 32 hours. They all did whatever they could and went the extra mile.”

Through this dedication from its employees, the company experienced no interruptions in monitoring and was able to handle astronomically high call volumes. Although the power went out for about 35 minutes, the monitoring center ran on a generator without problems. “It helps that we’re inside the Atlantic City Electric building,” Toner added.

Though call volume was “magnified probably about 300 times,” Toner said, most alarms were low priority, dealing with power loss and low batteries. “We got very lucky. It could have been a lot worse,” Toner commented. “Most of the other alarms and fire alarms were mostly due to power surges or loss of power and equipment issues on site. There were hardly any major signals.”

According to Toner, every one of the alarm signals received during Irene was weather-related. “We got very lucky,” he said. This may be especially true considering police and fire dispatches were discontinued in various places. “There were a few cities where police dispatch was sporadic. Some just refused,” Toner said. This was an issue mostly in the barrier islands the company serves, but also in larger cities such as Atlantic City.

Toner himself was evacuated from his home and stayed with a friend until about 2 a.m. Sunday morning when he called into the central station and upon hearing they were extremely busy, drove in. what was normally a 10-minute drive took more than 40 minutes, he said.

Today, things are slowing down as most customers get their power back. Service technicians are busy replacing low batteries, but only a little busier than usual. There have also been a few instances of water damage — water getting into smoke detectors and some electrical issues, that the technical department is addressing.

Affordable Home Security Inc. is located in Kill Devil Hills, N.C. on one of the barrier islands that makes up the Outer Banks. AHS provides security systems to the Outer Banks and its surrounding areas. The area was hit hard by Irene, causing foods, impassable roads, and power outages, though not much structural damages has been reported.

Robert Lucas, president at AHS, reported that though the company’s offices aren’t normally open on weekends, Irene had the premises vacated by Thursday and still inaccessible this week.

“We can’t go north or south on Route 12 because both are closed and won’t be open for a long while,” he said. “The storm took out the highway — it opened up several inlets.”

The company’s offices have been closed since Thursday and Lucas expects they won’t be able to reopen until Wednesday of this week. “We haven’t worked since Thursday,” he said. Things have been eerily quiet since. Lucas is working out of his home from a cell phone receiving calls from the office, as landlines were cut out, and didn’t get any calls from customers over the weekend.

“I’m surprised no one has called to say their battery is dead.” Lucas attributes the lack of calls to evacuations, landlines wiped out by floods and power outages since Sunday morning — oddly enough, he said power in the area stayed on through the storm but went out at about 5AM Sunday morning. “I expect some calls today and tomorrow,” Lucas added.

In preparation for the hurricane, Dare County Emergency Management urged residents to evacuate and stay away until the area was declared safe. “They had a ban on people getting on or off the sandbar,” Lucas told. “Anybody out in the mainland couldn’t come out to the beach. And they have been having curfews where the office is located.”

He continued, “The storm was bad enough, but the [Albemarle] Sound came back after the hurricane. Fortunately my house is up about 11 feet and didn’t get flooded, but you see a lot of people airing out their carpets today.”