FLASHBACK - The silhouettes of a vendor and other persons on Independence Square, Port of Spain, as the sun set on February 16th, with only the lights from vehicles creating light in the city. [Image by ANISTO ALVES]

The Association of Professional Engineers of Trinidad and Tobago (APETT) has expressed concern about the country’s resilience in the face of national disasters, whether natural or man-made.

The professional body released a statement in light of the recent national power outage, noting that a complete review of national infrastructure must be undertaken, to ensure this country can withstand and recover from such disasters.

“The event needs to be viewed in its entirety and not just from the blackout perspective,” the Association wrote in its release.

The following is the full text of APETT statement…

The Association of Professional Engineers of Trinidad and Tobago (APETT) believes that the island-wide electrical blackout which took place on the 16th February 2022 raises serious questions about the resilience of our infrastructure to withstand and recover from the kinds of natural or man-made disasters that can befall our country. We commend the quick response by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago in appointing an independent team to investigate the event, as its outcome will be beneficial to all. The event needs to be viewed in its entirety and not just from the blackout perspective. As an organization whose mission statement includes “The Association promotes the highest standards of professional practice and stimulates awareness of technology and the role of the engineer in society”, we articulate these concerns in the following areas.

■  Electricity Generation and Distribution

The recent failure of the Trinidad and Tobago Electricity Commission (T&TEC) transmission and distribution network and subsequent shut down of power generation across the island of Trinidad was impossible to miss. The effects of this outage were acute and impacted every aspect of our public utilities across the island. These effects should have been predictable.  All critical aspects of infrastructure that rely on electricity, are expected to have been designed with backup systems to allow for the uninterrupted functioning of critical services and an orderly shutdown of non-critical systems.

Whether the T&TEC shutdown was a fault or a feature of the system to protect lives and equipment, it should be elucidated by a thorough investigation. The investigation should determine if engineering design, maintenance, or other factors contributed to the initial power shutdown. There should also be a detailed analysis of our power generation and load sharing design, as in this instance, the failure of the main plant necessitated a restart without power from any other plants, also known as a black start. This took some time for the resumption of normal operations.

■  Telecommunications

Our day to day lives have become so dependent on telecommunications, and mobile communications, that these failures can result in inconvenience at best and personal loss at worst. Therefore, there should also be similar investigations into the performance or failure of the various telecommunications networks.

■  Traffic Signal Controls

Most of the traffic signals along the East-West corridor were non-functioning, resulting in chaos at the intersections, gridlock, and severe congestion.  Thankfully, some semblance of order was obtained via the interventions provided by members of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) and remarkably by regular members of the public at some signalised intersections.

During the blackout several key facilities and businesses that deemed their infrastructure/services critical, were running on standby generators. The fact that many traffic signals apparently did not have backup power supply, leads one to question, whether our traffic signals are considered critical infrastructure for the safe and efficient operation of our intersections where installed.

Globally, traffic signals at intersections are usually supported by a secondary or backup power supply, referred to as an Automatic Power Unit or Uninterruptible Power Supply, in the event of disruption to the main supply.  These backup power supplies provide service from a minimum of eight (8) hours to several days.  It should be noted that during the blackout, some traffic signals did indeed continue to work, indicating that some backup systems were functional.  One wonders why all our key intersections are not so equipped.  There are standby generators at many of the intersections that were affected, but these have clearly not been adequately maintained.

The problem of poor maintenance of traffic signal installations has been evident for some time. In addition to lack of regular and periodic optimisation of traffic signals, the public already experience delays and becomes frustrated while waiting for a traffic signal to turn “green” when there is no opposing traffic.  That happens because the vehicle detection devices at some signalised intersections are not functioning. This also not only leads to more driver impatience, but also puts drivers at risk of crime during the night-time periods. The money spent on having properly functioning traffic control devices and a well-organised traffic management function is a small part of the budget of the Ministry of Works and Transport (MOWT) but is essential for the safety and efficiency of traffic operations on the roadways.

APETT calls upon the MOWT to address the issue of the non-functional traffic lights during a loss of electrical power. During a time of crisis, it is a waste of precious police resources to man these intersections for extended periods of time. We should also consider the hazards at the intersections, even with the presence of the TTPS during the period of darkness.  Additionally, the time wasted and loss of income due to congestion should be considered. The non-functioning of the signals for reasons that are within the control of the MOWT is unacceptable. Traffic Signal infrastructure, where installed, is critical to the safe and efficient operations at their respective locations. Although no system can be designed to be 100% reliable, to have traffic signals inoperable under these conditions cannot be condoned.

Equally as important as determining root causes and improvement for those systems which failed, is the opportunity for the engineering fraternity to highlight those systems which performed adequately or exceeded expectations. These victories should become the baseline expectation and be firmly cemented as basic engineering practice.