ARCHIVED - What Happens when the Lights Go Out?

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April 05, 2005— Ottawa, Ontario

NRC researchers in New Brunswick will be using the power of computer simulation and modeling to dream up and execute some pretty dire scenarios for this Atlantic Canada province, such as ice storms, terrorist attacks and massive power outages. These efforts, it should be stressed are only simulations of possible events. The purpose of such planned simulations is to learn more about how critical infrastructure services, such as hospitals, the power grid and police services operate during such events.

Surgeons at work in a hospital
Surgeons at work in a hospital

The ultimate goal of this work is to reduce the impact of these scenarios and to better understand critical infrastructure interdependencies. Researchers hope to do that by building simulation models that will shed light on where things can and will go wrong in the system and actions that can be taken to eliminate these risks. Lessons learned in New Brunswick can have a major impact since many other jurisdictions across North America and worldwide face similar problems. Last month, the NRC Institute for Information Technology e-Business (NRC-IIT) signed a partnership agreement with the New Brunswick Department of Public Safety to explore the possibilities of developing new tools.

When the lights go out, use the generator

Dr Steve Marsh, Roger Martin, and Greg Sprague of the NRC Institute for Information Technology (NRC-IIT) at the command desk of NRC-IIT's new Privacy, Security, and Trust Research Lab (Photo credit: Keith Minchin)
Dr Steve Marsh, Roger Martin, and Greg Sprague of the NRC Institute for Information Technology (NRC-IIT) at the command desk of NRC-IIT's new Privacy, Security, and Trust Research Lab (Photo credit: Keith Minchin)

Greg Sprague, the project manager for NRC-IIT's Fredericton-based Privacy, Security & Trust research (PST) team, comments that while it's fairly obvious to predict immediate impacts of something such as power failure it is much more difficult to make predictions about the longer-term or unexpected effects. Researchers refer to these as 2nd and 3rd order events and, at the present time, surprisingly little study has gone into this area. "Suppose the power system goes down. In that event, hospitals, computer centres and telecommunications networks are forced to use generators to provide back-up power. But, if the situation persists, they run the risk of running out of fuel. And, in that case, it turns out that you need electricity to pump the diesel fuel required to fill the generators," Sprague notes.

Critical Infrastructures

Critical infrastructures are defined as critical because, if they fail, there could be serious consequences for the economy and society. Researchers have defined 10 areas of concern:

  • Energy and Utilities
  • Communications and Information Technology
  • Finance
  • Health Care
  • Food
  • Water
  • Transportation
  • Safety
  • Government
  • Manufacturing

One of the challenges facing researchers is that, not only are there a variety of infrastructure to be concerned about but, more importantly, they are linked in a series of overlapping interdependencies. In other words, each one is connected to the other. At the same time, to varying extents, each infrastructure relies on the other to function.

These systems have also been built to be able to detect changes in their environment and make changes accordingly, a fact that increases the difficulty of correctly predicting 2nd and 3rd order events. For example, in the event of increasing power demand, the power grid makes a call or request for more power to meet demand. Such demands are not the result of conscious actions by human operators standing by and waiting to respond. Instead, these demands are satisfied by automated systems that rely on what is known as agents, self-contained programs that facilitate the management and control of large systems such power utilities. However, if there is a gap or break in one or more of the critical infrastructures connected to the power grid, this could have serious consequences.

Highly mechanized port activities
Highly mechanized port activities

Dr. Andrew Reddick, Director of Research, New Brunswick, at NRC-IIT expresses excitement at the opportunity presented by the new partnership with the province. According to Reddick, between 80 and 90 per cent of infrastructure is owned privately, a figure that is common across North America, not just New Brunswick. "In the case of New Brunswick, we're fortunate that the Department of Public Safety already has good contacts with each of these infrastructure owners, which will make it easier to collaborate with these facilities," he notes.

Reddick also stresses that, because the province is relatively small and the infrastructures are well documented, it makes an ideal and manageable testing environment. Using this environment, the NRC-IIT/N.B. partnership is intended to produce outcomes that can be used to improve infrastructure management in New Brunswick and beyond.

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