When the Lights Went Out

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.

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.[PAGEBREAK]

Uniform Officers

When the lights went out in the Motor City, then Detroit Police Chief Jerry Oliver made the decision to hold over all working personnel and to put all sworn personnel, including plainclothes officers, into police uniforms. Oliver says the measures increased uniformed manpower by more than 60 percent, improving visibility of his officers on the street.

Oliver believes that having all officers in uniform was an important factor in maintaining control. He had prepared for this type of an emergency by asking his plainclothes officers to have their uniforms always available.

Emergency Power

One advantage that Detroit PD could bring to bear was industrial generators. Oliver says the generators kept the stationhouses running, and they worked remarkably well.

However, not all affected agencies could field emergency generators during the blackout. Cleveland police did not have generators and the loss of electricity made it difficult for officers not only to maintain power at police facilities but also to keep patrol cars on the road. According to Kilbaine, "We noticed the gas pumps at all the districts are run by electricity. We realized we have to have backup generators."

Food and Beverage

As it was in Cleveland, the fresh water supply was a critical concern in Detroit. And Detroit officers also faced a prepared-food shortage.

"With everything closed, all the normal places for police officers to get nourished were not available," explains Oliver. "Initially we had a lot of people who donated food. Some even donated water. But logistically we had to start thinking about what happens after the first eight hours. You need several locations where police officers can go to get water and food to take a break."

This led to the adoption of a new Detroit PD policy. "We learned we want every one of our precinct stations to have enough food and water for each one of our employees for two or three days, so we don't have to scrounge around for it," Oliver says. "Our emergency plans worked out how to feed senior citizens and the homeless, but we never thought about our own officers."

But despite the fact that they had to work long hours with little food and water, Oliver says Detroit PD officers served the public well during the blackout. "We put just about every vehicle we owned on the street with uniform officers assigned, and we gave clear instructions to all officers to be highly visible. This is the time when we wanted them to be seen at every park, every street corner, and where elderly people were."

As for crime, Oliver says the Motor City had some problems but not much more than any other August night. "This is Detroit," Oliver says. "Clearly we can't say it is crime free. But during the blackout our stats were as low or lower than a normal day. We did have some party stores broken into, but we didn't have looting or large-scale waves of people breaking and entering."

Detroit was without electricity for two days, but Oliver says the city's police managed to maintain order. "The fact that we were out there so quickly and we were so visible reassured a lot of people and deterred crime."

Pitching In

Interagency cooperation also helped some of the Northeast's largest and most crime-ridden cities cope with the power outage.

In New Jersey, the blackout lasted only eight hours, but Lt. Al Della Fave, director of communications for the New Jersey State Police, says as soon as the blackout hit, his agency began "brainstorming and planning for when evening rolled around and what to do in the inner city areas of Newark, Patterson, and Berginton."

According to Della Fave, the N.J. State Police immediately assigned troopers to the high-risk areas. For example, in Hudson County there were what Della Fave calls "minor disruptions" but state police were immediately dispatched and had the situation under control "within minutes."

Della Fave credits the troopers' training with the success of the deployment. "We run exercises periodically, and they were helpful. There was communication not just between the National Guard but with the emergency responders on the municipal level," he says.

Della Fave adds, "All of our plans centered on the immediate recall of personnel and resources. It was a good practice. It helped us fine-tune our deployment of resources for the future."

The New Jersey State Police believes the most important lesson to be learned from the blackout is the importance of joint planning and communication between agencies. "We have in excess of 500 municipal departments in New Jersey, and communications between those municipal departments was outstanding," Della Fave says.

For the New York State Police, working the blackout was pretty much business as usual. "We have seen enough events in recent years that our practice is pretty good," says Lt. Col. James Schepperly. "We just went into automatic mode. We had troopers out in the field, and we opened a command post here at division headquarters and one at the State Emergency Office."

One blackout problem that did affect the N.Y. State Police was the disruption of computer systems in the state's Emergency Management Office. But Schepperly says these problems were easily surmounted. "From our point of view our plan worked as it is supposed to," he says.

The plan that Schepperly is referring to calls for troopers to provide assistance with traffic and additional police presence in high-risk areas. And by all accounts, it worked well.

Schepperly believes that because of the numerous incidents that have kept his department in constant training sessions the past few years, its response to the blackout was basically uneventful. And he sees in the N.Y. State Police's response an example for other agencies to follow. "You have to have protocols established and be sure that there are opportunities to drill," he says.

Peace and order were maintained during the blackout by a combination of factors. The timing of the outage allowed most departments enough daylight to call in personnel and to prepare for the night ahead. Also, post-9/11 emergency procedures and preparation lessened the impact of the blackout.

But questions remain. If the blackout had been more than a glitch in the power system, and if it had occurred during the evening hours, would the big cities of the Eastern seaboard have been so peaceful? Many police officers believe the chilling answer to that question is, no. Consequently, they believe much more preparation, planning, and training is needed before the next crisis.

Shelly Feuer Domash is a Long Island-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Police magazine.

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