What happens when the lights go out

Receiving an early-morning text message informing me that there has been a power cut at The National Archives and that our Major Incident Management Team (MIMT) is being mobilised is not my favourite way to start the day, but that is exactly what happened last week.

At about 04:00 there was a power fault in the local area which plunged The National Archives and the surrounding houses into darkness. UK Power Networks (UKPN) was able to switch over to the back-up circuit and power was restored to the area soon afterwards, with one exception – The National Archives. UKPN was having difficulty switching us over to the back-up circuit. Engineers with torches strapped to their heads arrived in the dark and peered into the local sub-station, where the breaker wasn’t behaving….

Our head of estates (in his role as incident manager) had put in a call to UKPN, which indicated that engineers were on their way to our building, and power should be restored very soon. In the meantime our back-up generator was keeping our website and other essential services up and running, including the building’s emergency lighting. When power had not been restored an hour later we had to put our incident plans into action, with MIMT members summoned for a meeting at 07:00.

MIMT members represent all of the key business areas who are responsible for keeping The National Archives running, including estates, security, public services, collection care, technology, and marketing and communications.

A little bleary-eyed, and already missing breakfast, MIMT members assembled to receive a situation report and plan our next steps. Members of staff arriving for work were asked to wait in the public restaurant while we waited for an update on the power supply in order to make the decision on whether we could open for the day. Our communications team planned the messages to go out to staff and visitors on our website and social media channels; we also gathered information on all the expected external visitors, school groups, events, and other activities planned for the day, and decided how we could contact them.

We logged another call to UKPN at 08.00 and discovered that they couldn’t switch our power on, and that the mechanical engineer was 90 minutes away. By then, even if power was restored, it would take another couple of hours for us to ‘recover the building’ and ensure that all systems had come back up properly and that the building was safe and secure. Our buildings have a very complex ‘life-support’ system that ensures a comfortable working environment for staff and visitors, and provides a stable secure environmental condition for our documents.

We decided that there was no option but to close for the day, and everyone swung into action. We published a message on our website (using a PC on the back-up generator) and posted to our social media channels, and pushed an emergency text message out to staff. We got in touch with all of the groups we knew were due to visit, and recorded a message for our main phone line. By then some of our emergency lights were starting to fade, having lasted much longer than they should have.

The power finally came back on at around 09:00, but we hadn’t received confirmation from UKPN that it was stable. Our security and estates staff worked their way round our buildings checking that all systems had come back to life: CCTV, door locks, air conditioning and so on (even checking that the toilets would flush!).

Later in the morning, UKPN confirmed that they weren’t planning any further switching and we could assume the power would stay on. The emergency light batteries were virtually exhausted by this point, and would need at least three hours to recharge; we cannot function without them, so we knew that we wouldn’t have been able to reopen immediately even if the staff were still here. We know that a number of visitors arrived after this time and were frustrated to find the power on and a closed building, but without the emergency lighting restored (and other essential systems) it was just not possible to open.

Finally, in the early afternoon, a final update was posted to our website and sent out to staff, and the MIMT was stood down.

The MIMT has plans in place for all manner of incidents, and we regularly practice them through desktop scenarios and sometimes live exercises. Team members are used to working together in unpredictable situations, with an additional document salvage team on hand if documents are at risk. We don’t have a plan in place for every scenario, but we do have a set of procedures within an overall framework which allows us the flexibility to respond to whatever may happen. Our principal concerns are always life-safety, document preservation, and being clear in our communications. We invest in our building systems to support these aims, and I am pleased to report that virtually everything behaved as we would expect in response to a power failure. But there are always lessons to learn, and the MIMT will convene for a post-incident review.

Being a member of the MIMT carries significant responsibility, but it is made a pleasure due to the other members of the team, and our staff in general, because of the way we all pull together in a crisis.

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8 comments

  1. peg walz says:

    Dear Sir/Madam: I am not sure if this is where I write. I am planning on visiting England in April or May. I would like to research my grandmother’s family. I have a couple of questions:
    1. Do I have to make an appointment to visit your facilities?
    2. I will be alone, is there a hotel close to your records office so I can comfortably
    walk each day?
    3. Is there anything you recommend that I should do before visiting?
    Thank you so much for your response. Regards, Peg Walz

    1. Nell Brown (Admin) says:

      Hi Peg,

      There’s visiting information (like our opening times and location) on our website http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/about/visit-us/, which should be useful when you’re researching accommodation.

      You do not need to make an appointment, but you may need a reader’s ticket to view certain documents. You can find more details for new visitors here: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/about/visit-us/researching-here/

      I hope that helps.

      Best,

      Nell

  2. David Matthew says:

    Could I suggest that The National Archives may not be the best place to start and it depends on what you want, as there will be no birth, marriage or death records at Kew, but you will find people in the armed forces. There is a good forum at Who Do You Think You Are Magazine website who may be able to advise.

  3. […] UK National Archives – What happens when the lights go out http://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/happens-lights-go/ UK National Archives – Decision time: Military Service Tribunals 100 years on  […]

  4. jack says:

    Very Very dissapointed this has happened twice in a week. I just dont have time to shoehorn in a visit till at least next month now. Very upset with the works UK power networks have done in this instance.

  5. Patsy says:

    Tuesday 15th March 2016. After a costly 2 hour train journey I arrived today at the National Archives, eventually found a locker without a notice saying ‘out of order’ and as I took the key out of the locker the lights went out. Never even got up the stairs to pick up my new readers ticket. Sat in the semi dark with only emergency lighting for close on an hour before we were all told that the decision had been made to close for the day. How vulnerable are our precious national records if it can all be brought to a halt by one faulty sub-station? Why batteries and not a power generator which can be refuelled as necessary? There would then at least have been enough power to keep the loos flushing. Doors were stuck open but what if there had been a fire and a power cut – would the doors have opened to let people escape? I think the MIMT have got some serious thinking to do before the next power failure.

    1. Lee Oliver says:

      Hi Patsy,

      Firstly I would like to apologise for the inconvenience you and many others suffered. The electrical fault affected the local area, and not just us. We do have a generator for essential systems to protect the building, documents and people, however, as is common practice, our emergency lighting is battery powered, and is only there to ensure safe exit from the building, not to enable people to remain in the building and work. All our safety systems worked as they should, some doors did remain open, because they are on fire alarm sound sensors, and are independent of the power supply. If the fire alarms had triggered, we would have been able to safely evacuate everyone. We chose to keep everyone in the building because an evacuation wasn’t necessary, and it was cold outside! We do have several toilets that continue to work in the event of a power failure, for as long as the water tanks last, but not all the toilets. Following this incident we are reviewing the toilet facilities available in the event of a power cut. I would like to reiterate from my original blog that we prioritise the safety of people, documents, and the building, and that is exactly what we did yesterday. As is always the case in these situations, we try to avoid hasty decisions, so wanted to have as much information from the power infrastructure company before making a decision on whether we would have to close or not. In the event, power was not restored until 16:15, and we then needed the rest of the day to recover the building.
      Again, I apologise for the inconvenience, but there was really little more we could do.

      Lee Oliver – MIMT Public Services Lead

  6. Michael Lucas says:

    Arriving at TNA 3 hours after leaving home, & looking forward to staying untiI 7p.m. , I had less than 30 minutes before the lights went off. I then stayed around until 1.30, in the hope power would be restored (by this time lights were certainly on in adjoining houses.)Serious questions need to be asked of the power suppliers, with this having happened twice in a matter of days. Overseas visitors must have thought they were in the Third World.
    At present I have no confidence that if I visit again the same thing won’t happen then.

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