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When the Lights Went Out

Last summer's blackout proved to be valuable training for cops prepping for more severe incidents.

February 01, 2004  |  by Shelly Feuer Domash

On a hot afternoon last August much of the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada experienced a massive power outage. Air conditioners stopped humming, fans stopped turning, computer monitors and TV screens went black, lights went out, traffic signals died, and all the comforts of modern technology were ripped away from millions of citizens.

But for the most part, thanks to the quick work of public safety officers and the resilience of a public tempered by the events of 9/11, chaos did not result from the power outage. In fact, once word went out that the blackout was not the result of a terror attack, the public was remarkably calm.

Training Exercise

By most accounts, the great Northeast blackout of 2003 turned out to be a successful training exercise in post-9/11 emergency procedures for local police departments. From Cleveland to Detroit to New York City, police sources say they managed the emergency with few problems and they learned some lessons that they will be able to apply during the next incident.

New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly says he was "very pleased" with the way his department handled the blackout, and he credited the changes the department has made in its procedures since 9/11 with improving the NYPD's emergency response capabilities. "We are doing a lot in the post-9/11 world and every day we get to practice it. Our police officers are used to it."

Of course, some people are inclined to do some heavily discounted shopping during a blackout. Kelly admits there was a problem with looting when the lights were out, but says the NYPD kept it under control.

"We put a large number of officers out on the streets quickly in areas where we expected looting," Kelly says. "We did have looting arrests, but they were made quickly, right after it happened. That is, for a large measure, the reason we were able to keep it to a minimum."

Although crime for New York City, in general, was down during the blackout, the number of arrests, especially for looting, was up. According to Kelly, 162 people were arrested for looting that night, which was "a high number."

Emergency Power

Looters were not the only problem faced by the NYPD during the blackout. One of the department's biggest concerns was finding ways to supply emergency power to police facilities.

"We had some generators that didn't work," Kelly says. "And even where they did work, they did not power the whole facility. We have around 200 buildings; some had power, and some didn't have power when we thought they would have. Some generators worked, some didn't."

Another problem the NYPD encountered was with repeaters for radios. And, according to Kelly, the batteries in the radios ran down more quickly than anticipated.

Getting Home

Manhattan is an island. And people who come to that island to work every day do so primarily by electrically driven subways and commuter trains. So with the electricity off, the trains stopped running, making it difficult for commuters to get home. Also, traffic lights stopped working on the streets, turning normally tangled New York traffic into a mass of stopped cars and fuming motorists.

Post 9/11 the city's public safety officials had developed an emergency traffic plan. That plan was implemented during the blackout, and it worked pretty well, according to Kelly.

"Traffic was very orderly," Kelly says. "There was no horn honking because people understood what the situation was. It took awhile, but it all seemed to work."

Of course, commuters were not the only people in Manhattan who were inconvenienced by the blackout. Tourists were locked out of their hotel rooms as the electronic systems on the doors didn't work, and many hotels refused to let people back in for fear of criminal activity.

Consequently, many streets became crowded quickly, but Kelly says the crowds that were outside office buildings, hotels, and ferry crossings were well behaved and secure. "They were largely in groups and relatively easy for us to protect," he explains.

In New York, unlike some other cities, feeding officers was not a problem. Many restaurants in the city have generators. "It wasn't a situation where there was no food to be had. It was out there; you just had to find it," says Kelly. "Our officers are pretty flexible and imaginative, especially when it comes to eating."

NYPD officials are presently in the process of reviewing a detailed report on the blackout. Kelly says it addresses "batteries, repeaters, generators, and arrest processing and procedures." He adds, "There were many issues that arose but nothing that was earth shattering."

City officials are now teaming up with Motorola and Verizon to work out the communications issues and working with generator vendors regarding emergency power problems.

Block Party

Most public safety officials believe that one of the reasons order was maintained in New York City was the population's experience during the 2001 terrorist attacks and the lessons learned by police and other emergency workers during those attacks. And the same concerns about terrorism and emergency response may have also helped preserve the peace in other American cities.

The "overwhelming majority" of the public behaved," says Dep. Chief Kevin Kilbaine of the Cleveland Police Department. "On a normal day we would have about 50 arrests in the city. On that day we had 39."

Of course, just because there were fewer arrests does not mean that Cleveland was totally calm during the power outage. Kilbaine says that 911 dispatchers were really busy during the blackout. "The calls for service were up because people were worried in general about water, so some called the police. We also had some problems with people taking advantage by breaking and entering," he says.

Kilbaine says the number of arrests for breaking and entering was up by about a dozen, but he believes a substantial Cleveland PD presence on the street deterred that number from going up further.

Mobilizing officers was the first priority of every department affected by the blackout. Most were able to put a lot of cops on the streets within a matter of hours using post-9/11 emergency procedures.

In Cleveland, the city deployed more than 200 cars by 8 p.m., more than 125 more patrols than it rolls out on an average night. Kilbaine says that Mobilizing before dark was the ultimate goal, and he points out with pride that the Cleveland PD did so with an hour to spare.

Cleveland PD officers also faced the dilemma of what to do with their prisoner population. Some 200 prisoners were in custody in city facilities. The solution was to temporarily transfer them to the custody of other agencies that had not lost power or had better emergency power systems. Within four hours all of the prisoners were transferred out.

One of the key reasons that the Cleveland PD had to effect such a prisoner transfer was the lack of fresh water supplies in its holding facilities. The pumps for the water run on electricity. Cleveland public safety officials are now studying the implications of a long-term power outage on fresh water supplies in government facilities.

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