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Bills back up power after disruptions Measures respond to 'freakish' failures

The Buffalo Bills have strengthened their backup electrical system, trying to prevent the power disruptions that disabled the public address system and temporarily darkened restrooms and concourses during their Oct. 19 game against San Diego.

After a thorough study of that system, the Bills have installed a reserve set of batteries to power their backup generators.

They also have added generators dedicated to powering the PA system, including at the entrance gates.

Based on results from a full battery of stress tests on their system in the last two weeks, Bills officials have concluded that all three of their backup generators activated within 15 seconds of the original outage.

But what they call a "freakish" set of back-to-back-to-back power outages overtaxed their backup electrical system, Bills engineers have determined.

That's what led many fans at the Chargers game to report that the concourses and restrooms went dark for several periods in the first half and during halftime, raising concerns among fans and public officials.

Some fans also raised questions about safety for the more than 70,000 people inside Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park after the multiple power outages left the PA system not working for part of the game.

"The stadium is in its 36th year, and fortunately we've never had a power outage in a game," said Scott Berchtold, Bills vice president of communications. "We have a plan for such a situation, but we've never had to implement it.

"When you have an outage of this magnitude, you may find that an adjustment or two needs to be made, and that was the case in this situation. We have made the adjustments, the overall plan is better for it, and we're moving forward."

Late Thursday, the Bills still were conducting stress tests on their electrical system to pinpoint what went wrong.

When the system's backup generators activate, as they did immediately after the first power outage, they provide a limited amount of light, but enough for fans to safely navigate the concourses, restrooms, stairwells and suites. Those generators also provide a limited lighting source for the stadium pole lights and press box.

"During the tests, we inspected every bathroom, every corridor, every suite and club in the stadium, and we found the backup lights were on in all four of those areas," Berchtold said.

That's what convinced Bills officials that it was the series of three power outages -- specifically the last two -- that overtaxed the backup system.

"It was a unique set of circumstances that we certainly hope would never happen again," Berchtold said. "But if a similar situation arises, we feel confident that we have the plan in place to address it."

The key adjustment by the Bills involves installing the backup set of batteries, adding to the existing batteries that power the backup generators.

"The unique circumstances of the back-to-back-to-back outages put a strain on the batteries that are used to power up the generators," said Joe Frandina, vice president of stadium operations.

The other tweaking of the system will add backup generators specifically to operate the PA system. Fans at the Chargers game complained that no one explained the long backup at the gates when the ticket scanners didn't work.

The real culprit Oct. 19, of course, was a cluster of three or four helium-filled Mylar balloons.

"In simple terms, the metallic coating on the balloons came into contact with the high-voltage power line," Frandina explained. "That knocked out one of our main [electrical] feeds."

The power outages have provoked varied responses from fans. Some have complained loudly about the power disruptions and the resulting safety concerns. Others have told the Bills that they either reveled in the whole adventure or they enjoyed watching parts of the game with no scoreboard ads or television timeouts.

And many have questioned what would have happened if the power outages had occurred four weeks later, at the game Nov. 17, a Monday night, against the Cleveland Browns.

Bills officials acknowledge that that might have made it difficult to complete the game.

But their main priority, especially at a night game, would involve a safe exiting plan for more than 70,000 fans.

"We have a plan in place for a safe exit process for our fans," Berchtold said. "That plan has been in place."

Did the Bills go out and buy hundreds of flashlights after the Oct. 19 outages?

Not exactly.

But last year, during their first Monday night home game in 13 years, the Bills rented portable light trees, similar to the ones used at highway construction sites.

"We'll bring in a few extras [for the Browns game]," Frandina said.

Bills officials believe that many people don't appreciate the quick response of stadium workers on the day of the power outage.

Berchtold and Frandina praised stadium personnel for reacting quickly to the first outage, as they transferred power from the damaged electrical feed to a "redundant" backup line and immediately contacted New York State Electric & Gas.

"What a tremendous effort it was on the part of NYSEG and our stadium operations personnel, with their immediate reaction to the situation," Berchtold said.

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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