Posted in education on November 5, 2016 1:27 pm EDT

Critical Issues of Structural Power and Security

A focused look at how AC power and building security are intertwined. And what you, as a designer of church spaces, need to consider.











Sign up for our bi-monthly newsletter Designer Today to stay up to date with all we do at Designer and with what's going on in the field of house of worship architecture.


TAGS: electrical engineering, integration, security,


By Ken DeLoria

The practice of planning and expanding AC power to meet growing needs -- in church campuses, industrial buildings, scholastic environments, sporting venues, and other locations where people congregate -- has been consistent over the past 50 or 60 years. Engineers typically estimate the demands, draw up a request for a proposal, potentially take bids, and then start construction.

But sadly, that is no longer the case.

Uncertainty about future power demands eclipses any time in the past. What once was strictly an engineering exercise has become a political pursuit. We can read about new lighting instruments, audio amplifiers, and DSP backplanes in many locations, but here we are concerned with safety. And one modern tool to increase safety is mass notification systems for campus security. For those unfamiliar with mass notification systems, they consist of a lot of loudspeakers connected to a lot of amplifiers that can be used to make announcements that can be heard all over the campus.

In a very small church, this might be the pastor establishing control with a bullhorn. On a large campus, there would typically be a command center where the vocal announcements originate, as well as activating and controlling video (if video is available). The point is simple enough: if there is a terrorist or a terrorist squad poised to attack, the campus residents need to know immediately of the threat, and then what to do about it. The second part is hard because nobody may know what to do next. Such things can happen very quickly. It will always take some time for security forces, generally conservative and slow moving, to determine their next move.

The issue of solo and terrorist attacks is so prevalent that databases have been published listing where and when church attacks have occurred.

Especially Vulnerable

Churches are vulnerable because they have regular, well known times of starting and stopping, plus only the largest and most modern have extensive camera systems and guards. The would-be terrorist has little to risk.

Larger churches have begun to design and install command centers. Most smaller churches have not gone to that length, at least not yet. There never was a need before, not to mention the money it takes to do it right. But now, there are many ways that a terror group can attack without even showing their faces. Taking out AC power to the building is one of them.

AC Power

Of the utmost concern is not just high-jacking the main AC power, which is a relatively simple feat, but also disabling the emergency back-up generators. Back-ups should be hidden away, locked up tight, and have "need to know” access from anyone other than a senior security director. Their location and operative controls should be one of the best kept secrets on the campus.

[Back up generators] should be hidden away, locked up tight, and have "need to know” access from anyone other than a senior security director. Their location and operative controls should be one of the best kept secrets on the campus.

The problem is that special vaults, alarm systems, maintenance scheduling, and many other aspects will be needed, all of which should be as "secret" as possible. And as anyone keeping a secret can attest to, most attempts to do so don’t remain secretive for long. When that back up generator kicks in, it should be able to run MNEC for an hour or more without revealing its location from plumes of exhaust smoke.

Costs vs. Benefits

Who’s to say if the MNEC program will save a life -- or perhaps many over time. That is only for God to know.

[Many] believe that MNEC can – and at some point, will - save many lives.

Four keys to mass notification effectiveness include:

1. The audio part of the system must be 98% clear and intelligible ... everywhere.

2. The video part of the system must also be clear, if video is part of the package.

3. The control room, or “command center,” must be equipped with enough personnel and camera equipment to ensure that each party knows where he/she is going and why. Any commands that are voiced over the system must be impeccably understood to help [a potential] situation, rather than hinder it. Remember, a wanna be terrorist can hear the system too.

4. A clear line of distinction of who’s in charge and who reports to whom is essential for an orderly approach. Picture a small military operation in the context of the church.

Without solid organizational clarity in the command unit, and a clear idea of who is issuing orders, there will be little point to using the mass notification system. It may simply add confusion. So [what's really optimal] is a system of people and operational guidelines, not just a simple collection of parts and equipment.

The problem with fossil fuel power generation is the tell-tale exhaust that cannot be hidden. What to do?


There is an excellent solution, however. After [considerable] study, it [appears] logical to see the value of doing away with backup generators altogether, unless they're needed for an alternate purpose. [One answer is this:] the entire backup power system may be designed to run on batteries; when a crisis has passed, the batteries can be recharged again. A good set of gel-type batteries along with appropriately sized inverters will not be cheap, but can still come in way under the cost of the generators themselves, their lock-vaults, their fuel and ventilation systems, control system, and so on. For those who may not understand the power of modern gel-type batteries, a relatively small group can run an entire campus for quite a few hours until a crisis has subsided. Battery technology has come a long, long way, and so have their prices.

A new set of gels should last a day or two, or at least a full afternoon and evening, before needing recharging, depending on the size of the battery banks, the load, and other factors.

One excellent practice is to wire buildings so that all non-essential power demands, coffee in the break room, for example, are interrupted until a command reverses the interruption.

High-end gel batteries are typically used on luxury yachts and non-commercial airplanes. They produce no plume of smoke or other tell tale sign that would attract a terrorist group. The minor vapor let-off, which can be smelled but not seen, can be ducted far away from the location of the batteries with a small series of ducts and fans. And in most cases, cannot be [detected] at all.

Another important factor is this. Batteries can be recharged from the grid power quickly or slowly, over a week or longer, if necessary, instead of frantically over a few days or hours. To sum up, it's wise to look at gel battery products for specification.

After an installation is complete, the battery banks can be added into the intelligent IT backplane to integrate the system with cameras, alarms and collateral sources of AC power. It’s important to plan for this as early as possible.

Like any open communication system, opening up the backplane will also expose a certain level of vulnerability, so it's important to be sure that some good minds have thought out the security aspects before pre-construction efforts begin.

Multi Purpose

Industrial-grade battery-based power supplies can do more than one trick. They can provide backup power for inclement weather, be it snow, heavy rain, or excessive heat. They cannot replace LPG gas furnaces, but they can certainly drive the systems that control the furnaces. They can do many things ... they just can’t do them indefinitely like a generator can.

As the world gets more complicated and violent situations have an increasing role in people's lives, many opportunities will open while others will close. One new opportunity will certainly be MSNE. There’s still much to learn about Mass Notification, Back/Up Power, and a lot more in the same category. Large generator installations can take months to years before they are ready to go on-line. Conversely, large scale battery packs can be installed in a few days. They solve many problems while causing virtually no new ones... other than a small learning curve while the designers, installers and technicians learn as much as they can to preserve the battery life and obtain maximum performance.



What people are saying


 Add your comment:


Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?


Please enter the word you see in the image below: