Learning from 9/11

by Michael Mullaney on September 13, 2011

Professor Al Wallace has strong opinions about the security of our national infrastructure. Through his research, he is dedicated to educating policy makers, lawmakers, and others about the inherent dangers of our interdependent infrastructure systems.

Picture this: a hospital in North Carolina installs a huge backup generator, and is designated as a county’s primary medical relief center during hurricane-related power outages. But, in the midst of a blackout, the hospital discovers it has no running water, as its water is sourced from a nearby pumping station that requires electricity to function. Wallace says it is critically important to map and understand these kinds of interdependencies so we can better prepare for disasters.

The CBS blog SmartPlanet interviewed Wallace, a professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, about his work.  I’ve webnapped a few sections of the interview, and included them below. Please check out the entire unabridged story here.

Q: You received a phone call from the National Science Foundation on Sept. 11, 2001. What was the call about?

A: I had research grants in the past and had served as a consultant for the National Science Foundation. They were familiar with me and my work. When the event occurred, I was in my office. We’re in upstate New York, about two and a half hours from New York City. There was a call made. They knew of my interest in infrastructure. I’d been concerned with the holistic concept of infrastructures as systems. For example, railways systems depend on power in New York City. Power depends on transportation because you need coal.

In the context of emergency response — whether the event is a terrorist attack, a nuclear power plant or a natural hazard — there’s a need for coordination. Managers of infrastructures are talented people. As individual infrastructures, they get through ice storms and fires. They can mobilize. The difficulty is that you need someone who sees the interrelationships. These are complex, particularly in Lower Manhattan. They need coordination to point out where these relationships occur. You can have cascading failures like what happened in Japan. An earthquake cascaded into a tsunami, which hit the nuclear power plant. These interrelationships are evident in our work. We can help officials by giving an integrated view.

Talk about the interrelationships between infrastructure during 9/11.

I use that as an example because they did well. I don’t want to pick on them. Power lines and phone cables were in the same vault. You had generators available for some businesses, but the generators required fuel. Once the generators ran out of fuel, they couldn’t get power. The emergency operating center itself was in the World Trade Center. The coordination facility was destroyed.

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Do you have anything else to add?

We tend in this country to take our infrastructure for granted. It’s something we need to look at from a quality of life [point of view]. Our competition in Europe and Japan and China have much more infrastructure. That’s an immediate problem. It comes to the forefront when you have these major events. You see how fragile our infrastructure is because of the interdependent nature, but also the lack of investment.

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