POLITICS

Calgary officials deactivate emergency plan day after telecommunications chaos

07/12/2012 01:49 EDT | Updated 09/11/2012 05:12 EDT
CALGARY - Officials in Calgary deactivated their municipal emergency plan on Thursday, saying 911 service was functioning normally again a day after a downtown fire and explosion at Shaw Communications headquarters.

But the situation remained far from normal for Shaw customers, some banks, several radio stations and anyone who required any sort of electronic records from the Alberta government.

"We've been working through the evening and early morning to evaluate the impact on the data centre to try to minimize the impact on services to citizens," Service Alberta Minister Manmeet Bhullar said in a news release.

Services that remained unavailable included vehicle registration and licensing, student high school transcripts, land title searches and hunting and fishing licences. Provincial programs that provide income support and health benefits, such as payments to disabled Albertans, were also affected, although the province said emergency claims could still be processed in person.

No one was hurt when a blast in a 13th-floor electrical room on Wednesday brought down Alberta Health Services computers, put three radio stations off the air and affected some banking services.

Lines to many critical communications services, including 911, were interrupted or unavailable for Shaw customers on Wednesday and early Thursday. Calgary's municipal 311 information service was also affected. The city said Thursday that the line was fully operational again, although some city call centres were still experiencing service disruptions.

ATB Financial said some of its banking services were affected by the disruption. The company's website remained down on Thursday, and bill payments could not be made online or at banking machines, according to company spokesman Glenn Kubish.

"We're doing a lot of our communication through Twitter, actually," Kubish said.

The Shaw building also houses three radio stations — CHQR, Country 105 and Q107 — and those stations were running programming from sister stations in Edmonton on Thursday.

Fire Chief Bruce Burrell said it's still too early to say what caused the fire but he said there was a significant amount of water throughout the building. He said that safety inspectors were at the site on Thursday but anticipated it would take time before it would be safe for employees to re-enter.

"The fire was basically on the 13th floor and certainly I saw water trickling down through cracks in the floors, and down through the pipe chases when I was there last night, on the second and third floor. So it had travelled a fair distance through the building," Burrell said.

The city said Shaw was continuing to work with its phone and data customers to restore normal service.

Shaw has said that getting the Alberta Health Services up and running again was its highest priority.

Alberta Health Services said it hadn't been necessary to reschedule surgeries or other procedures on Thursday, but that it was "selectively prioritizing" Friday's surgeries. Urgent care would not be affected, the health provider said.

Patients were advised that they would be contacted directly if their procedures needed to be rescheduled.

IBM occupies a couple of floors in the building, according to fire officials, and their services were affected as well.

Bhullar said the Alberta government decided to switch to service from its backup site, which is located in Markham, Ont., based on how long it would likely be until power was restored to the Shaw building.

The department said that as soon as systems went down on Wednesday, it invoked its data emergency response plan. Information technology staff worked with IBM through the night on how to restore services.

Officials in Calgary also noted that some people had been tying up emergency operators by phoning 911 just to check if their service was working.

"While 911 service is now fully operational, we remind Calgarians that 911 should be used in emergency situations only," a city news release stated.

Burrell said several investigations will take place into the incident by different agencies. The city's emergency management organization, he said, will examine to see whether the disruptions could have been prevented or whether anything could have been done differently.

He said that while the Shaw building was designed with a full double-redundancy system, whatever happened in the electrical room apparently compromised both systems.

Having both the main system and the backup system in the same spot isn't uncommon, he said.

"You always try to significantly separate your systems. But you can't have a redundancy system that's from a remote site and be guaranteed that it's actually going to service the site that you're working at," Burrell explained.

"Even our emergency centres within the city of Calgary — our redundant systems — are all on one site."