On Nov. 24, 1961, General Thomas Power, supreme commander of the United States’ nuclear-strike force, the Strategic Air Command (SAC), was woken in the middle of the night by an urgent call from SAC’s headquarters. SAC had suddenly lost all communications with the headquarters of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) and three radar sites designed to provide early warning of an incoming Soviet nuclear attack. The complex communication links between SAC, NORAD and the warning sites had been carefully designed to be fully redundant, so that communications would not accidentally be lost due to human error or equipment malfunction. SAC officers even tried to place a regular telephone call to NORAD headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado. It was no use — the lines were dead.
U.S. military planners had long believed that any Soviet surprise attack on North America would first target the early warning sites and NORAD. The sudden and total loss of communication looked very much like the opening phase of a surprise attack on North America. General Power ordered his nuclear-armed B-52s to start their engines and prepare to begin their retaliatory runs against the Soviet Union.But before ordering his planes into the air to begin their approach to the Soviet Union, there was one last thing General Power could try. SAC established radio contact with a plane and ordered it to investigate the condition of Thule, one of the early warning bases. Several minutes later, the plane reported back that it had established radio contact with Thule, and that there had been no attack. As improbable as it seemed, the entire incident was just a communications failure, after all. An investigation later revealed the embarrassing truth: The “fully redundant” U.S. nuclear early warning system, not to mention NORAD’s regular phones, all connected at one telephone junction station in Colorado. And it had been knocked out by a minor fire.
This old Cold War anecdote came to mind on Wednesday night, when I received an apologetic phone call from an employee of QR77 in Calgary. I had been booked to go on a talk-radio show to discuss a recent column, but QR77 was off the air. An electrical fire in their building had triggered the automatic sprinkler system, and that had in turn led to the entire building losing power. And when it went down, it didn’t just take QR77 with it. Two other radio stations went off the air. Several government computer systems lost their servers. Cellphone service was disrupted. And downtown Calgary’s 9-1-1 emergency telephone service was lost for 30,000 customers.
Welcome to a modern day example of infrastructure vulnerability.
Few of us give any thought to how dependent we are on dozens of interconnected technical and economic systems that sustain our lifestyle, and sometimes, our very lives. We flip a switch and the lights come on. We turn a faucet and clean water flows. Grocery stores and gas stations never run out of stock. Instant and reliable communication, across great distances, is taken as a given. The systems that permit all this are enormous, widely distributed and highly resilient to destruction based on their sheer scale. Burn down one grocery store or knock down one cellphone tower and the one up the street gets a little busier. Life goes on.
But sometimes, huge and complicated systems (or even systems of systems) are brought down by fantastically tiny glitches that happen to strike at exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. So it was in 1961 in that Colorado telephone junction. So it was in Calgary on Wednesday afternoon. And so it was during the Northeast blackout of 2003, which cut electrical power for 55 million people in the United States and Ontario. That was eventually traced back to a combination of a computer glitch and unusually hot weather causing power lines in Ohio to droop and make contact with tree branches that hadn’t been properly pruned. That was all it took to shut Toronto and New York City down.Governments are not blind to the problem. The Department of Homeland Security in the U.S. has been worried about protecting critical points in the U.S. economic and military infrastructure for years, aware that terrorist groups or hostile military forces could do massive damage to the broader U.S. economy by pulling off relatively confined attacks in specific areas. That’s obviously their job – knowing one’s own vulnerabilities and mitigating them is an essential component of national defence.But defending against this sort of thing is extraordinarily difficult. The systems that sustain our economy and civilization are too complex to be easily managed, or even understood by the trained professionals who run them. Returning to the 2003 blackout, the investigation into it revealed that even as the situation spiralled out of control, utilities operators in Ohio had no appreciation that their electrical grid had become unstable and little understanding of how, as transmission wires overloaded and generators automatically shut down, the problem would ripple throughout their electrical system.Those ripples quickly spread to Michigan, from there to Ontario and New York. By the time operators began to realize something was going wrong — “Oh, my gosh, I’m in deep shit” one said to another, who replied, “You and me both, brother” — the events were unfolding too fast to stop. Boom. Out went the lights.
And this was a glitch. Imagine how much worse it would have been if it had been an intentional act — one hydro engineer, familiar with the grid in the Greater Toronto Area, once told me, “I have nightmares about how easy it would be for someone who even partially understands our system to totally shut it down for days, if not weeks.”
Days, if not weeks. The 2.6 million people living in the city of Toronto primarily get their drinking water from five major storage facilities, which are refilled using electrical pumps. Assuming normal usage levels, that’s about a 24-hour supply. In an emergency, that can be cut back some, but how far? Would the power come back before the water ran out?
In 2003, of course, we got lucky. There was no real damage to any of the infrastructure that went down. Restoring power was a matter of untangling the mess of connections and restarting the generators. But it’s not hard to imagine how hard it would be to recover from an emergency that did actual damage to infrastructure, even if it was limited. To those who’d like to believe that the government would sort things out and get the lights back on and the water running again in short order, something to keep in mind is this: On Thursday morning, in Calgary, services had still not been restored. And that was the doing of one office building’s sprinkler system.
Emergency preparedness is a good thing for governments to focus on. But whether talking about the Elliot Lake mall collapse in Ontario or the ongoing efforts to turn Calgary’s communications back on, there’s ample evidence that governments are simply incapable of adequately tackling the complexities of disasters confined to even a single building. If something big ever happens — and sooner or later, something always does — we should all expect to be on our own for days, or longer. The systems we’ve built to support ourselves are just too complicated to repair any faster than that.
Calgary Explosion: From Elliot Lake to Calgary, governments just can’t cope with disaster | Full Comment | National Post