Jock's Backroom Blog

Views from the Backroom, and the Classroom, at Oxford Brookes University

Electrifying day in halls

Posted by Jock Coats on February 19th, 2012

After a short power outage on the Morrell Hall part of the Clive Booth site on Friday evening, for an hour, many of us awoke to find the power cut off on Saturday again.  Friday’s had been a short lived affair – just an hour or so.  But it soon became clear that Saturday’s outage was going to be a much more serious affair.  Scottish and Southern had had a major outage well outside Brookes’s campuses as it turned out, and this time it knocked out all of Clive Booth Student Village, all of Headington Hill Hall Campus, and all of the Cheney Student Village site including the Brookes Centre for Sport, and apparently around 1,000 local homes.

Initially, SSEPD had estimated everything would be back on within two to three hours, and, sure enough the N-X and Postgraduate bits of Clive Booth, which are fed from the Marston Rd mains and are separate from the old Morrell site and the rest fed from the Headington Rd mains, came back on at about 13:00 on Saturday.  Then, ominously, we got messages from the power company that there may be some addresses to which power would not be restored until “evening”, then that it might be restored between about 20:00 and midnight.

This would have meant between nine and thirteen hours between losing power and reconnection.  Not, you would think, a total tragedy, but it is amazing just how reliant we are on sound electricity distribution.  We knew we were likely to be without ethernet as most of our site is fed through one of the affected blocks.  So there was very little we could do about that but hope everything rebooted nicely when power was eventually restored.  But who knew that in modern three storey buildings we are no longer operating on mains pressure water, for instance?  That all the water supplies are pumped into the buildings by, yes, electric pumps.  Even potable, drinking, albeit only cold stuff that could, theoretically, come from a three or four bar mains pressure to feed buildings of three storeys.

In institutional buildings, indeed probably anywhere with communal hallways and stairways, it is routine now to find battery backed emergency lighting.  But of course we discovered that that has a finite life (not really a surprise!), so by the time dusk came all of those were also off (it’s clearly not as simple as saying “can’t they only go on when it’s dark” because it *is* dark in windowless corridors and so on all day) and the place was in pitch blackness (thanks to student residents also who did not resort to candles which might have increased the potential risks of incident much further under such conditions).  The internal phone system went too in the affected blocks, whether straight away or after batteries ran out I don’t know – I’m not sure whether the student bedrooms are on IP telephony but previously we also had at least one internal old fashioned phone in each flat we could have used, under battery backup, for several hours, I think.

Fortunately, when SSEPD said 20:00 they meant it.  Our estates people had been on to them during the day quite a lot stressing that we had up to 1300 student residents stuck, many without water and all without light and heat, and they had set themselves a deadline of 20:30 to get everything reconnected or to install a generator backup supply on the most affected sites.  So well done to SSEPD for getting it all back on at about half seven.  And well done to the Brookes estates teams for getting onto site quickly after that to ensure that pumps, boilers and so on had started up again correctly.  I had also taken some steps to escalate knowledge of the outage to the heads of student services and estates, in case we needed to think about contingency plans (though it would indeed have been a very major operation to make alternative arrangements for so many people).

If there’s any big lesson to be learned from this it would have to be, in my opinion, how we get news to so many people to keep them in touch with what’s happening, and to inform them about possible alternative facilities (like drinking water, loos capable of flushing and with lights to see in).  A year or so back I set up a bunch of Twitter accounts for Clive Booth as a whole and for each block individually, but they’ve never been used much.  Maybe this is the spur that we need to start using such technologies.  If they can organise revolutions, then surely they can get information out to at least sufficient numbers of people such that word of mouth can take over from there.  The most depressing (and at times it has to be said irritating) thing yesterday was having to repeat the same message to so many people calling in to try and find out what was going on and what the prognosis was.  We may not have much to tell people, but at least we could keep people in touch with what we do know and what we are planning by way of contingencies if necessary.

Oh, and my iPad with 3G was a saviour.  With few people onsite with network connectivity, and certainly none in the hall office, it was the only way, without constantly pestering people who were no doubt already under a lot of pressure from estates, to keep in contact with news from SSEPD and so on and to fire off emails when we couldn’t contact some people by phone.  Though this would have been of course much more difficult had the entire site been out of power for the whole time – phones, iPads and so on needed charging to keep going.

I very much hesitate to ask “what would they have done without me” but clearly my knowledge of how so many bits of the site work gained over years here was important in being able to explain to people why certain things weren’t working and when they could expect them back and what alternatives we might be able to offer.  I am even able to tell some of the maintenance guys a thing or two about how things work down here, such as the rather bizarre loo flushing system in our newer blocks that was still off this morning.

In OBIS we are striving to ensure that nobody is the fount of all knowledge about a particular service, in case that person is incapacitated or simply not around at the time the knowledge is needed.  Hopefully we can get some kind of knowledge base, accessible to the people who need it (i.e. not just those working to fix problems but those who have to deal with the residents/customers/users while they are not working), when they’re stuck without even the basic systems needed for most such facilities to function, for such a large and diverse site as ours, built over forty years and with several different ways of doing any one thing as the technologies have changed over those years.

But huge thanks and credit must go to Tom, Colin, John, Steve and no doubt others in estates I’m not aware of for ensuring everything was back as soon as possible, to Gary and H for checking it to ensure we were all okay and “back to normal” as well as to “higher ups” like Keith and Richard whom I disturbed on a weekend evening just so they were aware of possible issues, and to the likes of the Networks and Telecoms teams for systems that proved resilient and didn’t need intervention once power was restored.  And of course, down here, to all the wardens and hall assistants who had to deal with the real human issues arising all day.  And to all our residents for (mostly) taking the whole thing in good humour.