Portland 911 Outage Demonstrates Power Protection Importance

April 07, 2017

By Steve Anderson - Contributing Writer

At 10:30 a.m. in Multnomah County, Oregon, the worst happened: a power outage struck that, for around 30 minutes, left the emergency dispatchers unable to accept 911 calls. It's the kind of disaster no one wants to face down, and oddly enough, power protection systems actually played a role in the outage, illustrating the importance of system maintenance.

Oregon authorities believe, at last report, that this outage represented the longest service disruption the emergency dispatcher office had ever seen. Given that Multnomah County's emergency services dispatcher is the largest such operation in the state, it could have represented a major catastrophe.  The outage not only took out primary phone lines, but also the backup phone lines, and the computer-aided dispatch system. It was unclear as yet just how many calls failed to connect as a result of the outage, with updates said to be forthcoming in terms of the overall numbers.

The outage was ultimately traced back to a faulty component in an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) unit, which ultimately caused an electrical surge that took the second UPS unit offline and, with it, took out the power as well. Though power was restored fairly soon thereafter—phone and radio lines were back up by 2:20 p.m.—the operation is running on just one UPS instead of the customary two. In fact, the staff was just about to move to a backup center about 10 miles away from the current location when systems were restored; activating the backup center would have taken about another half-hour on top of the current outage length.

Seldom is it seen that a UPS unit actually causes an outage, rather than steps in to provide extra power to safely shut down systems or even operate some systems through the outage. Yet here, we see how important it is to not only regularly test such backup systems, but even to use these as though there were a problem in a kind of “emergency drill” fashion. Had the system been tested before the outage hit, the faulty component might have been found while there was grid power to use instead. Such a measure might well have allowed the system to be properly updated and the outage to never happen in the first place.

Hindsight will always be 20 / 20, and everyone is always wise after an event. So take one lesson home with you from this power protection outage in Multnomah County: having these systems is great, but testing these routinely will help keep them ready for when they're needed most.

Edited by Alicia Young

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