Blackout: Two tales of a city

Every business in Auckland's CBD has a story to tell after the power cuts in the past two weeks. Computerworld reporter Kirstin Mills spoke to a small organisation - Auckland City Medical Centre - and a large one - the ASB bank - to see how they coped and found two quite different stories.

Every business in Auckland’s CBD has a story to tell after the power cuts in the past two weeks. Computerworld reporter Kirstin Mills spoke to a small and a large organisation to see how they coped and found two quite different stories

Auckland City Medical Centre, CBD.

Casualty: One cooked computer.

Biggest annoyance: All the centre’s systems are computerised.

Biggest regret: That the centre didn’t have spike protection on all its computers.

Lesson learnt: Backup, backup, backup.

The centre’s power has been intermittent during the past two weeks — an inconvenient situation, to say the least, because all its notes are computerised on Good Practice software from New Zealand company Medata Medical Systems. Without power, doctors can’t access their notes.

“You don’t know how much of a hassle that is for a doctor,” says Dr Gerald Young.

The hassles arise if people want a repeat of their medication at a time when the power is down, but don’t know what medication they’re on or what the dosage is. The software normally enables doctors to look at a patient’s history and build up a picture.

“I guess you’re spoilt with a computer. You prescribe a drug and it flashes up a warning that the person is allergic to it, whereas you’ve got to use your brain when you do it manually.”

Prescriptions are being done with pen and paper when power does go, and staff have to make notes of follow-up appointments — something usually entered in the system and issued automatically.

The centre’s file server is the only computer which has a spike protector. The other five computers have no protection.

“So we’ve cooked one already.”

Young is unsure whether the damage is to the hard drive or to the power switch. He’s not aware of any lost data, as it sits on the main file server and that’s been backed up.

A negative is that backup on to a Zip drive takes 15 minutes, during which time staff can’t use the computer program. They aim to back up twice each morning — instead of the usual once a day.

In addition to the computers, the PABX won’t work without power. Luckily, the centre had an ordinary phone line which is used for the answerphone.

“But the problem is if someone rings right now it will drop to the next line, but of course I won’t hear it ring. They will hear it ring and think we’re not answering the phone.”

Young’s minor surgery has also been affected because he obviously can’t work without lights and can’t use an autoclave to sterilise instruments. “That’s a computerised job as well and it has to complete the cycles, so even if you get halfway through it’s no good, and you’ve got to start from scratch.”

The centre had no disaster contingency plan in place. “We never assumed that we would have power off for weeks at a time.”

He laughs now that the centre turned down some business interruption insurance it was offered. He says the doctors are now likely to get spike protectors for the other terminals when the centre upgrades its computers.

Any other lessons?

“Backup, backup, backup, backup.”

So would Young consider giving up the computerised system now?

“No way. Not in a million years, because the advantages of computerisation — and this is something that should be said because a lot of doctors are fearful of it — are between a hundred and a thousand times better than manual systems. I mean, how often does this happen?”

Young says the quality of medical care is also improved with computerisation.



Disaster contingency plan in place: Yes

Result: Operating fairly smoothly, but still some “sweating” involved.

Lesson learnt: The disaster scenario can become real life.

ASB has five branches in the CBD and unlike most banks it aimed to keep at least two operating during the power cut. A third “branch” was set up at the ASB Centre on Federal St using the bank’s mobile banking caravan.

CIO Gary Fissenden says the ASB Centre is running on full generator power (with fewer lights, lifts and forced but not chilled air conditioning) and when the power comes on it is used for air conditioning. Every power socket works.

“This is a modern, first-class quality building. The generator is a big serious beast designed to run continuously and to deal with the load.”

The generator was used for the first time two weeks ago when there were the first unexpected power cuts.

“When power is cut the UPS takes over and it takes 40 seconds for the generator to power up and start taking that power load. The comment we’ve had is that our building is one of the most functional in the CBD.”

When you’re a bank you don’t leave such things to chance.

“These things are regularly tested and it cuts in within 40 seconds of any power dropping and there’s the UPS as well to keep any spikes out of it.

“Our head office centre has been fine, and our computer centre is in the same boat with a large generator — well-maintained and tested on a regular basis.”

Unsurprisingly, then, there have been few problems with computer systems.

“We have a disaster site for our computer systems; we go across to that disaster site once a month and switch the network across so the machine is there, it’s running. All we did with the power shortage was get that site up to production mode, ready in case something happens, and moved a couple of full-time operators out there to be prepared for it.”

That’s not to say it has been easy.

“There’s been a lot of sweat in between all that, and a lot of hard work actually nutting down all the other sorts of things, just little things like the odd server you find that is dependent on power in that building and hasn’t got the ability to switch it to Manukau, things like that.”

Fissenden says the lessons learned will be the same as those learned in the sharemarket crash.

“A whole generation of people have lived through a sharemarket crash and had that experience, and it’s been ingrained into their psyche. This is going to be the same thing. It’s been ingrained into all our psyche that you cannot rely on some things being there, like power.

“So when you’re actually practising your disaster contingency the people who have lived through this are going to know, ‘Ah, this was real one day’. And that’s going to mean you’ll be that little bit more interested in the disaster contingency. It’s now real to all those who have lived through this.”

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