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The night the lights went out in Calgary

When the lights went out in in downtown Calgary October 2014, most people assumed they’d be back on in a few hours. But it would be more than four days before power was restored to the homes and businesses across the 17-block area.“It was quite eerie, to drive through downtown Calgary at night and look up. A whole portion of Calgary looked like it was missing,” says Tom Sampson, deputy chief of Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA).


June 5, 2017
By Linda Johnson

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The outage, which began around 8 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 11, was caused by an underground electrical fire. The blackout zone, in the downtown’s west end, included 5,000 residents, 10,000 workers and 112 buildings.

While city operations were not much affected, Sampson says, 36 traffic signals went off, and power was lost at two light-rail transit stations.

“We knew we were down. And then the question became, once the fire is out, can that be re- routed? And can we supply power from another location? But once the fire was out,” he added, “we found we couldn’t actually restore to those locations from any other spot.”

On Sunday, they brought in generators to power signal lights and LRT stations, to keep roads and transit operations working. They opened an information centre, which also assigned places to residents who had to be relocated.

The fire damaged some fibre- optic network cables, affecting some city services. Information centres were equipped with phone rechargers to provide emergency power and Wi-Fi to recharge cell phones.

A major concern, Sampson says, was high-rise apartments. As well as losing power for elevators, they lost water to upper floors, as the water wouldn’t rise above 13 or 14 floors. They knew vulnerable people, the poor and elderly, would be especially affected.

“At no point did we ever issue an evacuation order; however, a small number of buildings chose to evacuate their people due to carbon monoxide concerns,” he says.

For people who chose to stay in their homes, he adds, the city set up water wagons on streets.

Animal and bylaw services offered to care for pets. And emergency social services worked to make sure residents were able to access the services they needed.

The first residents were relocated on the Sunday. Timing was good, Sampson says. With Thanksgiving, hotels not only had vacancies, they offered reduced rates. Eventually, more than 700 residents were moved into 360 hotel rooms. Adam Legge, president and CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, says businesses in the area coped as well as they could. Many retail and restaurant operations shut down, while larger, of office-based companies generally worked remotely.

“A lot of them have the VPN, virtual private networks, or some of them are activity-based in the Cloud, so they were able to be up and running. But then, there were others that just had to take a couple days off,” he says.

Legge says the 2013 floods helped raise awareness of the need to improve preparedness. Still, he believes, most companies are not well prepared for emergencies. While improving resilience seems important during an emergency, it is quickly forgotten when the situation ends and business returns to normal.

“It’s a message we continue to reinforce every chance we can: companies need to have preparedness plans, a contact data base, a plan for what you do if you can’t get into your of office,” he says.

“But the flood definitely woke everybody up. At least it got put on the agenda, for a period of time.”

Eli Watfa, enterprise architect at Vital Business Systems in Calgary, says some of their company’s customers, who could not get to their offices because their buildings were closed, could not continue business and had to shut down.

“This is the problem with some disaster recover setups because all the data resides at their office. So when the power goes out, they have no access to their data,” he says.

“Companies need to invest in geographical diversity of data. So when there’s a problem in one location, we fail over to the other one.”

A few companies, Watfa adds, had hosted email external to their office. “So their emails were still working, but they could not access their data. When the email is hosted by Office 365, or similar service, it doesn’t actually reside in the City of Calgary.”

Power was restored on Thursday, Oct. 16, around 6 a.m., Sampson says, so because of the holiday, many businesses were affected for only two business days. Following their emergency management model, recovery efforts began while they were still responding. The city was thus able to boot back up faster.

“It costs about $7 million an hour to close the entire core, based on just the salaries not earned and not paid,” he says. “Getting Calgary back on its feet really is important, not just to the people but to the businesses in Calgary.”

*Originally published in Emergency Management Canada Spring 2015