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Preventing a ‘Blackout Bowl’ at pro football’s biggest game

Hundreds of elite electricians converge on University of Phoenix stadium to ensure connectivity and uptime.

Editor’s note: Here’s a look back at preparations for the big game, where Fluke tools played a role.

January 2015


An interior shot of the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona

GLENDALE, Ariz.—The days leading up to Super Bowl XLIX at the University of Phoenix Stadium are a whir of activity as crews prepare for American football's much-anticipated championship game.

Some 150 million people are expected to watch on TV. Thousands more will watch inside the 63,400-capacity stadium in suburban Phoenix.

A 13-foot tall clock with 200 feet of LED lights in downtown Phoenix is counting down the days to the Feb. 1 extravaganza. Pop star Katy Perry will provide this year's halftime entertainment.

As much of the rest of the U.S. copes with a frigid winter, landscape crews in short sleeves and shorts water and groom the retractable natural grass field in the desert sun. The field sits on a massive platform that remains outside until just before game time.

Meanwhile, the NFL and an army of electricians fervently work to prevent what has become to be known as the "Blackout Bowl," an electrical outage on Feb. 3, 2013, that left viewers and fans in the dark wondering what happened at the Superdome in New Orleans.

It turns out that it wasn't the halftime performance by Beyoncé, as many had suspected. Instead, a malfunction in an electrical device called a shunt, ironically designed to prevent problems, is blamed for triggering the blackout. The shunt was apparently tripped by a massive surge of electricity as lights and HVAC systems were turned on after Beyoncé's show.

"As I understand it, this shunt was put in specifically to prevent what happened,' said Bill Lipscomb, president of WBL Services, a 30-year veteran of managing technology infrastructure at National Football League games. "It was supposed to monitor any surges and prevent them. What it didn't take into consideration was the halftime show.

"All the lights go off for the halftime show," Lipscomb said. "That is on its own power. We don't use any city power for that. But they turn off all the HVAC and everything so it's quiet. Bringing all that load back up at one time tripped that shunt."

NFL brass and an army of elite electrical workers are making sure that doesn't happen again. Crews working for WBL Services, which manages the communications and data network at the stadium and convention center downtown, are among those doing everything they can to ensure uptime and reliability this time around.

"So ever since then we're doing all sorts of remediation and game restart procedures and everything else," Lipscomb said.

"Back in New Orleans of course they had the old mercury vapor lights that have a 20-minute strike time," he said. "All the lights here have been changed out to LED. So they have a 50-millisecond strike time so they come on right away."

WBL runs all its telecommunications and internet data equipment off power generated by huge diesel generators dotting the massive parking lots surrounding the stadium. In fact, even when the lights went out in New Orleans, all the media trucks, including broadcasters, continued to operate because they were off the grid on generator power.

The Seattle-based company provides services not only at big NFL events, but also other mega-events around the globe including the World Cup, concerts, trade shows and more.

Bill Lipscomb, president of WBL Services, telecommunications and internet services contractor

At the Super Bowl, WBL has 18 full-timers on site—core staff from around the country—and hundreds more contractors to make sure internet and phone service stays working for TV and radio broadcasters and other reporters.

WBL Services also handles the network infrastructure for instant replay, the coaches' intercoms, coaches' video, PA announcement system, power distribution and "pretty much anything else to do with technology," Lipscomb said

"We submit close to 1,800 credential request for all of these people," he said.

To maintain uptime and ensure clean power, WBL first designs a system with built-in redundancy—backup generators as well as telecommunication switches using both analog and digital technology and failsafe data servers.

Then, workers test it all. Incoming electricity from the generators are tested using a Fluke 435 Power Quality and Energy Analyzer and the Fluke 1730 Energy Logger. And wirelessly connected tools, including ac and dc current modules with flexible current transfer loops, are being deployed to safely monitor the current.

The power will even be monitored remotely via the Fluke Connect app on smartphone and laptop while the game is going on. A Fluke Ti125 Infrared Camera is being deployed to ensure the data centers are at the proper temperatures.

Their work is particularly urgent given the NFL's redoubling of efforts to maintain the reliability of the electrical equipment after that infamous blackout.

"The best teams are here, and being the Super Bowl we utilize the best equipment because we can't have a point of failure," said Shane Conner, a WBL contractor and president of ATEC (Advanced Technologies in Electrical and Communications) in Lebanon, Ind.

"Nothing in this venue can fail for the greatest game on earth. I mean it's a really big event. It's a four-hour game and it's watched across the world so Fluke is definitely our tool of choice out here."


The free Fluke Connect™ app is available for Android (4.3 and up) or iOS (4s and later) smart phones. Learn more at www.flukeconnect.com.


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