Monitoring: Surviving the Queensland Floods
FLOODS make short work of communications channels, pouring into pits, short circuiting connections and inundating buried conduits. They don’t stop there. Floods break down electrical infrastructure and isolate businesses completely. For most monitoring stations these are conditions their graded central stations are designed to handle but seldom face. Beginning in late December towns and suburbs along the Fitzroy, Burnett, Condamine, Ballone and Mary Rivers were subject to flooding and before it was over three quarters of the state of Queensland was declared a disaster zone. Making matters worse, a flash flood smashed through Toowoomba’s business district and swamped the Lockyer Valley. Downstream, thousands of houses in Ipswich and further east in Brisbane went under as the Brisbane River broke its banks. For many homes and businesses, power and communications were lost causing alarm systems to fail. In some cases entire properties were flooded, with panels, keypads, sensors and smokies all under water. According to Danny Meikle of Alarm Industries located at Coopers Plains in Brisbane, while his monitoring station had no problem with flooding or loss of power in the control room, there were contingency plans for this. “We did not have to evacuate our premises though we have a plan in place to move to another site should this be required,” explains Meikle. “This would require transferring the 1345 to that site and moving our spare server and spare receivers. “We already have a rack/power etc ready to go in another location if needed. We also have a relationship with another monitoring company that would be willing to help out if required, and the same applies in reverse.”Meikle says that for Alarm Industries loss of powers at customer sites was the major issue the monitoring station faced during the floods. “Those customers whose sites went under water were the easiest to handle as they tended to be restricted to certain areas and it was a simple black and white solution,” he explains. “Most customers rang and advised us of the impending problem they were about to have so it was not a surprise.“The main issue for us was customers that had power off for more than 24 hours but were not flooded and still wanted security for a week or so before power was going to be put back on. In general most customers realized that there were a lot in the same situation and where willing to accept the situation for what it was.”Meikle says the only way around power issues is the design and installation of solar charging and backup batteries before an incident takes place. “The lesson is that unless you have some sort of solar charging solution then most alarm systems have a limited life when power fails. Generators were in high demand so this solution also was not realistic either.
issue was not really about monitoring paths but rather about power. No
alarm system works without a constant power source and no alarm system
will work under water”
“Clients who do go down this path then need to be very aware of the dangers with running generators in confined spaces. According to Meikle, the trouble signals from sites as they flood varies depending on the sort of site and where they are located.“In this instance, power outage was the first sign there was an issue as power was cut off in most instances prior to flooding,” he explains.“Tamper signals and alarm signals followed as water entered sites and started shorting devices. For sites that did not have water damage but lost AC power, battery failure signals were received prior to systems shutting down.You’d think that wireless systems operating through air space would perform better during floods than two-pair PSTNs operating out of street cabinets at ground level but Meikle says there was no noticeable difference despite the fact most his customers use dialler reporting.“The issue was not really about monitoring paths but rather about power,” he says. “No alarm system works without a constant power source and no alarm system will work under water. The rest is really just debating on which technology you prefer.“There was no real problem our end in terms of loss of communication, though there was definitely added stress and workload for staff as traffic load became heavy in the flooded areas,” Meikle explains. “Our staff handled it extremely well and all were willing to get stuck in to help out.”Meikle says that the company’s response to the flooding was limited in some places. “In many instances nothing could be done as Police and government departments had advised no one was to enter most of these areas, especially if you did not live there,” he explains.“This meant that many areas could not be physically accessed due to water ingress so our security patrols or police could not help. Most clients understood this and took it very well. Common sense did prevail with everyone.” In terms of recovery Meikle says that since labour is one of the largest cost with alarm systems it probably would be just as easy and cost effective to do an new installation when possible.Across Brisbane there are hundreds of alarm panels that have been underwater and all must now be replaced. This includes cabling“There are a lot of systems that need to be replaced,” explains Meikle. “Each will need to be addressed individually. Water damage to cable will need to be assessed on an individual basis depending on water ingress and the amount of spare cable on each end and that means a lot of testing will need to be done.“Obviously some sites went fully under water others and only partially so depending the location of the alarm panel and relevant devices will dictate what needs to be done. When replacing and repairing systems we will try to address clients on a risk basis in order to ensure the most needed are dealt with first.”Meikle says monitoring stations and staff assisted each other as things deteriorated. “Most of the independent monitoring stations in Brisbane have been around for a while and there is a general willingness to help each other out in case of an emergency,” he explains. “This is not uncommon in the past with equipment failures as well. Most of the owners know each other fairly well.”Not surprisingly, Meikle has some strong views about lessons that should be learned from the floods. “Monitoring stations should have a disaster recovery plan which can be implemented quickly, he says. “This could be a dedicated offsite location or it could involve outsourcing lines to a disaster recovery centre that supplies assistance if needed.“Also important is developing a relationship with at least one other monitoring station to ensure assistance if needed. In our case we seem to be in a fairly healthy position.”Meanwhile, Statewide Monitoring Services at Rocklea was located on an island of high ground but next door the Brisbane Tennis Complex and the Brisbane Markets were covered by metres of filthy water. Statewide’s Tim Huntley says the central station remained fully operational during the flooding.“Several staff were committed to staying regardless of what was happening to ensure all the monitoring requirements were carried out as well as possible. We were isolated here for two and half days but went well. “We were without mains power and running on generator but we did not lose any communications into or out of the central station,” Huntley says.“The staff at Statewide Monitoring Services showed dedication and a highly professional manner through the entire experience.” Like Alarm Industries, Statewide had a plan in place to move to another site and continue operating if this was required. But Huntley says the main problems staff faced were due to mains power being turned off in the area and batteries going low. The cascade of signals from flooded or cut off homes included mains power, low battery, tamper and general trouble and communications alarms.“I estimate about 400 to 500 lines in total were affected. We continued to contact the client’s to advise them of the current status of the security system,” says Huntley. “Physical Security was the main defence during the floods where you could access areas.”Huntley says the damage suffered by alarm systems depended on the depth of the flooding. “Some of these systems just had components replaced and we were able to get them back up and running,” he says. “Several that weren’t affected directly by the flooding started back up when the mains power was reconnected. “Only those systems completely flooded will need to be replaced and all the cabling should be checked and replaced if required.”