Operationalizing the Nation's Critical Infrastructure Resilience

Bringing together the nation’s public, private, and academic stakeholders from diverse preparedness communities – and the owners and operators of U.S. critical infrastructure facilities – is a daunting but necessary task. That becomes even more challenging, though, when trying to implement resilience plans at the local, regional, state, and federal levels.

To address these challenges, Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), already designated as a University Affiliated Research Center (UARC), hosted a Capabilities Analysis Exercise (CALEX) last month in Laurel, Md., attended by approximately 60 thought leaders from across the country. The participants included representatives from the private sector, academia, various government agencies, the U.S. military, and a broad spectrum of other entities and organizations. Their collective goal was to determine, more precisely, how to define the abstract concept of resilience and, more specifically, move beyond: (a) the lessons learned from Superstorm Sandy in 2012; and (b) the rote crafting of grant proposals submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after every major disaster to restore things “as they were before.”

Broadening “Resilience” & the Prevention of Future Tragedies 

The exercise began by broadening the definition of resilience from the relatively common but necessarily abstract concepts of redundancy, adaptation, and robustness to a more general statement. APL presented its definition of resilience as “anything done – physically or virtually – before, during, or after a disruptive event to improve the ability to adapt, withstand, and recover.” The 27-28 August CALEX presented critical infrastructure resilience as a public good that many Americans simply expect to be provided. Drawing from the inspirational work of the late Elinor Ostrom, the U.S. 2009 Economic Nobel Laureate, APL focused on the importance of engaging in collective action in order to avoid such social dilemmas as “free riders” and the “tragedy of the commons” – i.e., individuals depleting shared resources.

The CALEX presented a systematic methodology known as the Resilience Implementation Process (RIP) to validate and help forge a consensus that resilience can in fact move from theory to practice across the nation’s many preparedness and homeland security enterprises. Two basic assumptions were used for that exercise:

  • “Mega regions,” which are defined here as major socioeconomic areas in the country that generate a majority of the nation’s gross domestic product and represent the locations of highest population, are where the nation’s principal economic and demographic strengths are most evident; and
  • The interconnectedness within and among the infrastructure sectors can cause the unanticipated cascading of system failures.

Those assumptions – which focused special attention on the persistent threats posed by natural disasters, terrorism, and climate change – allowed attendees to work with a unified purpose on what most agreed is a somewhat fragmented topic.

APL also asserted that, for resilience, the most important awareness to have before a disruptive event is anchored in risk-mapping the current dependencies and interdependencies of a bounded geographic or organizational area. Used in a systematic and structured manner, the risk-mapping process is designed to provide the information needed to help leaders and planners make better-informed decisions when facing asymmetric threats in a resource-scarce environment.

By emphasizing the need for collective action, use of the RIP methodology helps operators and planners focus greater attention on their own specific areas of influence – i.e., elements outside their normal area of control that, because of interdependencies, can and often will impact their operations. The recognition of such connectedness prepares operators and planners to manage any incident of significance more effectively, while at the same time reducing the level of uncertainty involved. Although the infrastructure sectors seem to be largely governed and operated independently, they are in fact highly interdependent and therefore must be understood and managed as common-pool resources that benefit society as a whole. To do that, of course, requires “smart” resilience and the use of both public incentives and private investments to support the shared interests of all sectors involved.

The CALEX Results: Ten Key Findings 

The preliminary findings of the CALEX are that the collective national, state, local, and regional enterprises must address the following recommendations:

1. Improve communications within the community of interest through the use of standardized terms and a common language when referring to resilience. Making communities better prepared calls for a clear nomenclature that unifies public, private, academic, and other stakeholders across local, state, regional, national, and international levels.

2. Expand the RIP framework byentifying the specific variables needed to capture connectedness, dependencies, and interdependencies in both physical as well as virtual terms. The current RIP is considered to be too abstract and too theoretical; it needs to be structured more effectively – to map the landscape of a bounded geographic area, for example, in order to demonstrate the practical value of long-term risk mitigation.

3. Apply rigorous analytical methods to the RIP concepts by leveraging existing models, tools, and frameworks more effectively. Building a reliable and more general framework will help planners and decision makers answer questions about what the key variables are, for instance, how to prioritize scarce resources, and why action is needed – thus offering benefits at the personal as well as organizational level.

4. Operationalize the RIP by applying the approach to a specific real-world region or facility laboring under the stress of a disruptive event. Operational field-testing allows prototyping and testing with measurable impacts toentify the elements of connectedness and to better understand essential functions.

5. Close existing gaps between operational practitioners, policy planners, and analysts by applying specific metrics, standards, and measures of effectiveness. Operationalizing resilience with owners and operators at the local, regional, state, and federal levels requires “selling” preparedness as much more than an insurance policy – primarily because it offers a daily value with a personal and organizational return on investment.

6. Establish new mechanisms to bridge the private-public divide by expanding information sharing and building trust. A holistic, integrated, and cross-sector approach unifies and complements the private and public sectors – not only by addressing major disasters and catastrophic events, but also by applying the process to routine disruptive events such as financial hardship, traffic congestion, and severe weather.

7. Introduce the RIP to a broader consortium of potential users, analysts, and planners in the private, public, academic, and international communities. The CALEX revealed that the RIP has the potential not only to inform national policy, but also to be generalized to broader geographic and organizational applications. (The RIP still requires field-testing, though, to model, simulate, test, and exercise the concept under a broad spectrum of various conditions.)

8. Establish a regional-based resilience strategy that focuses primarily on risk management, preparedness guidelines, and key data sources given the mega-regions’ importance to the nation. The investments in risk mitigation, visualization models, decision support tools, and data sciences should significantly advance overall community resilience.

9. Establish a clear linkage to collective action principles, emphasizing the separate but synergetic roles of the public and private sectors in implementing resilience as a public good from which everyone benefits. As shared interests in the global commons, resilience and preparedness must be managed collectively (as in clean air, national defense, clean water, and fisheries resources) to avoid what is euphemistically described as a “tragedy of the commons.” This requires accountability to reduce “free riders” on one hand and, on the other, to build the incentives needed to bring new private investors into the resilience “market.”

10. Increase emphasis on individual resilience through the use of such guiding principles as personal responsibility, family-level incentives, low-cost human preparedness measures, and local investments in practical resilience actions.

The Future of Resilience 

The next generation of preparedness leaders must make better informed decisions by optimizing resilience and mitigating risk in the face of receding budgets; or, in business continuity terms, “remaining viable under conditions of duress – no matter what the cause” (quote from personal interview with Alan Berman, President of Disaster Recovery Institute [DRI] International, on 4 September 2013 in Laurel, Md.). Managing risk involves dealing with uncertainty and associated threats and opportunities. The RIP is designed to systematically quantify those variables well in advance of an event in order to help leaders regain control of a crisis more quickly and more effectively.

Finally, the CALEX attendees recognized the need – locally, regionally, and nationally – to invest in preparedness to maintain safety and, of perhaps greater importance, to actively learn from real-world events – and then use the lessons learned to achieve common goals. When resilience efforts lead to preparation and dependability, the nation as a whole will be significantly safer, more secure, and more economically prosperous.

Significant contributions to this article were made by: Richard “DJ” Waddell, a principal staff systems analyst at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. He has extensive experience developing and managing technology solutions and is currently focusing on homeland protection projects on the technology needs of state and local first responders and emergency managers.

Brian Donohue, a senior analyst at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. As a licensed officer in the U.S. Merchant Marine, he has extensive experience related to the maritime industry.

Dane Egli

Dane Egli, Ph.D., is a senior advisor at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, a career U.S. Coast Guard Guardian, and a member of the DomPrep40. His forthcoming book, “Beyond the Storms: Strengthening Homeland Security & Disaster Management to Achieve Resilience,” will be published in November 2013.

John Contestabile

John Contestabile is the program manager for emergency response systems for the Johns Hopkins University/Applied Physics Lab. He joined the Lab in July 2009, after retiring from the State of Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), where he was acting assistant secretary for administration responsible for, among others, emergency management and homeland security. In addition, he was named acting deputy homeland security advisor by Governor Robert Ehrlich and later the director of the Maryland State Communications Interoperability Program (MSCIP), reporting to the superintendent of the Maryland State Police, by Governor Martin O’Malley. He is also a member of the Preparedness Leadership Council International.



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