Masters of Disaster
All eyes are on Alberta as the province launches a new centre designed to cope with catastrophe. But in the face of a real emergency, will it be enough?
by James Stevenson
When some untrimmed tree branches in Ohio knocked out three high-voltage power lines last August, it started a cascading blackout that swept across borders and very quickly left 50 million people in Ontario and the northeastern United States sweating in the dark.
This was no devious terrorist plot, there were no spectacular explosions, yet major cities like New York and Toronto were paralysed for days as the antiquated, interconnected power grid struggled to get back up. Modern society’s dependence on electricity became abundantly clear. Grocery store coolers and everything inside them turned tepid, cash machines were lifeless and even gasoline was inaccessible without the use of electric pumps. People were asked to stay at home and wait for things to return to normal.
And in the days and months that followed after the lights came back on, many questions lingered. How did something as vital as the electrical grid get so frail that it could collapse so easily? How was it that, even in the post-Sept. 11 paranoia, alarm systems and monitoring equipment failed to warn anyone until it was too late? Where were the redundancies and firewalls to limit the damage to just one company or jurisdiction? But most of all, people wondered that if critical infrastructures could fail so easily in some of the most heavily populated areas of North America, what would stop something similar from occurring elsewhere?
In Alberta, where winter cold snaps can freeze exposed flesh in a matter of minutes, a sudden shutdown of natural gas or electricity supplies to large parts of the population holds haunting implications of a major disaster. Last year’s parade of calamities are also still fresh in the mind of most Albertans whether they had a direct impact like the mad cow discoveries and horrendous forest fires that torched the B.C. Interior and Crowsnest Pass, or a less direct one like the SARS outbreak in Toronto and ferocious hurricanes along the East coast. It is clear that being ready to handle a large-scale incident is of utmost importance. But is the province ready?
Dave Redman, the acting executive director of Emergency Management Alberta, says although last summer’s power outage couldn’t physically have impacted the western half of the continent because of the way the power grids are set up, it still acted as a “refresher” to make sure that plans were in place to handle a similar threat.
In the event of a major collapse of the power supply, the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO) has a cold-start plan in place. “The AESO knows how to bring the grid back up and the government will work with them to ensure the minimum impact on Albertans,” says Redman. Under the Alberta Disaster Services Act, all 359 municipalities in the province must have municipal emergency plans, established response groups and committees of elected officials to oversee the operations. Soon after the lights went out, it’s likely that each of the affected municipalities would declare a local state of emergency and the province would get ready to help – only if multiple municipalities were in the dark or they were unable to cope without the province’s co-ordinated support. Alberta’s emergency operations centre would spring to life, communicating through satellite phones as required with the AESO, the municipalities and other relevant government departments. Backup power supplies at hospitals, seniors homes and other high-risk areas would kick in to keep the lights and heat going. “Alberta wouldn’t live in a black hole,” says Redman. But the key to success in the event of any emergency – from infrastructure failure to terrorist bomb blast, killer tornado and disease outbreaks – is the planning and co-ordination. And this is where the provincial government’s brand-new “emergency operations centre” comes into play.
Plans to open Emergency Management Alberta’s fancy new headquarters were accelerated out of a nervous reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and recommendations from Premier Ralph Klein’s Provincial Security Task Force. It is tucked away amongst rows of anonymous warehouses in an industrial corner of Edmonton, but because the government already owned the 1,500-square-metre building, renovation costs were kept to a minimal $1.4 million.
Inside, the place is a rabbit warren of ready-rooms powered by in-house generators and empty desks at hand to house top government and security personnel who can fill the place within two hours – any time, any day. If, for example, a large, suspicious explosion were to occur in one of Alberta’s cities, intelligence partners including local police, RCMP, and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service could be quickly linked though the centre. Once the crisis management team had determined whether it was a single incident or ongoing threat, the consequence management side would step in. Alberta Health would be asked to co-ordinate the handling of major casualties, Alberta Environment would be charged with determining potential contamination of surrounding areas, and so on. Even arm’s-length organizations like the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board or private industry could be quickly brought in if further testing or heavy equipment were needed.
The crown jewels of the operations centre are three James Bond-style rear-projection screens – costing about $20,000 each for the made-in-Alberta technology where the touch of your finger acts like a mouse to negotiate more than 340 layers of databases including up-to-date satellite imagery that can isolate a town, the neighbourhood and even specific streets throughout the province. The facility’s location is somewhat secret but does have a briefing room where media will be assembled and used to communicate the government’s message to the population.
“Our ultimate goal is to provide confidence to our citizens,” says Guy Boutilier, Alberta’s minister of Municipal Affairs, in charge of emergency management for the province. “We now not only have the human infrastructure to deal with natural or man-made disasters, but we have this physical infrastructure as well.”
When it comes to man-made disaster, it’s easy to dismiss fears that Alberta could be chosen as the site of a terrorist attack as self-aggrandizing paranoia. But in truth, Canada now provides 15% of all America’s natural gas needs and 10% of its oil, and the lion’s share of that industry is based in Alberta. There is no question that the province is strategically important to the Americans, and in today’s world, anything valued by the U.S. is considered a potential target.
“I think Alberta could be a prime target,” says Dan MacLennan, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees – which has many members whose jobs and lives could potentially be at risk in the event of a major disaster. “Just look at all the pipelines, and there’s going to be more of them in the future, not to mention the even larger role that the oilsands is going to play. I think of places like Fort McMurray, Cold Lake, the Strathcona refinery area: You could send a huge terrorist message worldwide from Alberta.”
But it’s also difficult to get a true sense from the authorities whether Alberta’s planning for such an attack will be sufficient. And that’s something that Leslie Green, an anti-terrorism and international law expert and professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, believes is appropriate. “To a very great extent, my own attitude is: you don’t talk about what you are ready to do or what you are capable of doing,” he says. “Because they – whoever they are – can read. And if they know that certain steps are in readiness, they know how to make those steps useless. I already think we have too much publicity over exercises taking place.”
Still, even Ottawa believes Alberta’s plan of bringing all emergency operations under one roof is a strategy that many other jurisdictions – including the federal government – should be examining closely. Greg Stringham, vice-president of markets and transportation for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), says that when the province began petitioning industries for support of its new plan, the oilpatch was immediately on board because of its vital relationship with its neighbour to the south. Industry, he says, had to ensure its largest customer knew it would continue to be a very reliable supplier.
Like the United States, Alberta has a counter-terrorism plan that is based on threat levels that range from no threat recognized to low, medium, high and imminent. But unlike the Americans’ nationwide, colour-coded alert system, it takes a direct threat to the province to trigger a rise in preparation levels. And that comes after information received from Canadian or international law enforcement agencies has been thoroughly collated and analysed.
It needs to be pointed out, though, that since the plan was set up in November 2001, Alberta has never seen it rise above the “no threat recognized” level. And it has never had to declare a provincial state of emergency since the Second World War, although there are usually about 10 to 12 municipal emergencies called each year. The province’s emergency notification system enables it to reach 500 people every five minutes.
MacLennan also says that it’s foolhardy to believe that threats would come solely from the outside. So far the only known attacks to energy infrastructure in Alberta have come from the infamous Wiebo Ludwig – who blamed the oil and gas industry’s flaring of waste gas for poisoning his family in northwestern Alberta – and overzealous attempts by police to catch him. While in recent years minor acts of sabotage to energy infrastructure have abated, he says, there could be other militant environmentalists out there.
The exact definition of what is considered to be a “disaster” tends to revolve around financial aid. Alberta’s rule of thumb is to offer disaster assistance when the costs to handle an incident run significantly over and above the normal operating expenses of a jurisdiction. The province estimates it spent about $140 million on disaster assistance in 2003. But the total costs to the provincial and national economy tend to be much higher. The Bank of Canada estimates the country’s GDP was hit by 0.7 percentage points in the second quarter and 0.6 percentage points in last year’s third quarter from all the various disasters. Guesstimates by economists say SARS cost the national economy upwards of $2 billion when things like the impact on tourism are factored in. The blackout is believed to have cost about $550 million. It’s very hard to calculate the costs that major incidents have on businesses.Pages: 1 2