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Studying 9/11 to understand infrastructure interdependence

Studying 9/11 to understand infrastructure interdependence

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Ten years after surveying the damage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a systems engineering expert developed software to help officials understand infrastructure interdependence.

Ten years after surveying the damage of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a New York systems engineering expert has developed software to help officials understand infrastructure interdependence during disasters. Al Wallace, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, says it's imperative to understand the connections between our transportation systems, water pipes, power lines and other infrastructure -- before a crisis. Below are excerpts from our recent interview.

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

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.

Describe your research at Ground Zero. What did you find?

It was emotional. It was difficult. It was good for me as an individual to see it, to understand what took place, to get the feeling of the emotion. The first responders worked so hard. We didn't want to bother people. Most of the research and data collection took place afterward. However, I wouldn't give away that heart-wrenching experience of being there while the fires were still burning.

After you left Ground Zero, how did you continue your research?

We got a little smarter. We got maps. We had data on the transit system and the power lines. We got as much as we could from public sources. There wasn't much web-based in those days. Ten years ago we turned to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. We identified from the text instances of interdependence. The reporting was well done. That's a good source of on-the-spot reporting. It enabled us to identify instances of interdependencies and build cases on why it happened as part of our research.

You developed software that lets officials see the interdependencies among civil infrastructure systems. How does that work?

The most important part is the interface. First responders tend to be visual people. They can look at diagrams and maps. We had to have an interface to the technology that was friendly to them. Instead of giving them a table, we put it in a geographic information system to present the results of our analysis. It's a map display.

We needed some way of describing the damage. We settled on a network representation. It's circles connected by arcs. That enables us to deal with all our infrastructures in the same way. Then we had to get these representations. Out of ConEd, Verizon, Port Authority, we got real data representations of these infrastructures for Lower Manhattan. That enabled us to build a good representation. We needed some way to assess damage. Sometimes power is down and a traffic signal could be down. We have to reflect on damage. We need to have some idea of the resources available. Who are the people and what are their skills?

We assist them by letting the mayor, the governor or the president make decisions on highest priority. Our methodology enables people to prioritize demands. Why is this important? A knowledgeable vice president from ConEd can understand it. But when you have a relationship between ConEd and Verizon, they don't even know each other. It depends on someone who can understand the big picture. The mayor needs to have a tool to understand the priorities.

How far along in development is the software? When might it be available for use during actual emergencies?

Hurricane Irene was mostly just a rain event for North Carolina. We were spared the opportunity of doing a good assessment of our tool. Our tool is locked and loaded. It's in good shape for New York City, but they didn't get hit [by the hurricane].

We did a rudimentary test. We participate in training exercises. We don't want to be in a position where we interfere with the response. We'd like to have the tool there if they want to use it.

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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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure