Homeland Security and Public Safety

America’s Crumbling Infrastructure Will Challenge Emergency Managers For Decades

Every event related to critical infrastructure is unique, leaving planners to face more unknowns than knowns.

They call it “critical” infrastructure for a reason. Roads and bridges, energy, water, even the food supply: The loss of any one of these can bring a region to its knees.

It’s not just the collapse of a critical resource that can wreak havoc. Rather, it’s the inherent interdependencies within these systems — the potential for a domino effect of failures — coupled with the complex nature of public and private interests inherent in critical infrastructure.

To understand how critical infrastructure drives unique challenges for emergency managers, it helps to start with a real-world example.

On April 9, 2009, vandals in San Jose, Calif., cut through an AT&T fiber-optic cable, disrupting land line and cellphone service to thousands of residential and business customers, but the damage went much further. The Internet went down, 911 calls were stymied and law enforcement telecommunications broke down.

“If the police made a car stop, they couldn’t ask for warrants, they couldn’t run license checks, so it became an officer safety issue,” said Frances Edwards, the former director of emergency preparedness for San Jose. The incident proved vividly that a breach in the private infrastructure could have broad implications, even hampering public-sector efforts to manage an emergency.

The San Jose outage is but one example, and not even the most extreme, of the perils posed by a vulnerable infrastructure.

In September 2010, a 54-year-old gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, Calif., killing eight people and destroying more than 50 homes. In one high-profile incident in 2007, a bridge spanning the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 and injuring 145.

Events like these illustrate why the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave America an overall “D” grade for its decaying critical infrastructure.

The situation appears to be a recipe for disaster. The average bridge in the U.S. is 43 years old, and one in four of the nation’s 600,000 bridges is deficient, according to the ASCE. The Wall Street Journal reported that of more than 3,000 oil and gas production platforms operating in the Gulf of Mexico, one-third were built in the 1970s or earlier. It gets worse: A New York Times analysis found that a significant water line bursts roughly every two minutes, or 720 times a day.

Complicating the situation for emergency planners is the fact that every event related to critical infrastructure is unique, leaving planners to face more unknowns than knowns.

Each time an infrastructure element fails, “it causes the emergency managers to reconsider all of their emergency plans,” Edwards said. “You don’t know what you don’t know, so after you have an event like this, it makes you stop and wonder: What else is out there? Now you have all this new information on how systems actually function, so you have to rethink your procedures and retrain your staff to make room for the new reality based on what you did not know before.”

In other words: a moving target.

The situation is further compounded by the privatization of roughly 85 percent of the nation’s most critical infrastructure systems. That infrastructure may encompass varied forms. According to the U.S. DHS, critical infrastructure includes not just the obvious — roads, bridges, power grids, nuclear facilities and dams — but also agriculture, health care, manufacturing and other categories.

In contemplating this extremely wide range of possible sources of calamity, emergency managers must work through a delicate dance with private owners of infrastructure.

In this dance, even simple definitions can be confusing.

If a substantial power outage is cause for emergency action, “how do the local government and the utility agree on the definition of ‘substantial?’ How many customers are out? What will the utility be reporting to emergency management, and what will be the emergency manager’s expectation of that?” said Charlie Fisher, vice president of crisis management consulting firm Witt Associates.

Chain of command likewise may not translate easily between public and private players. As the two work to craft an emergency plan, who will the private sector send to the table? “Is this someone who has knowledge and authority, or just a messenger?” Fisher said. “If you are sitting with the police chief and the fire chief, you want a very senior person from the utility there as well.”

In fairness, some say the burden of planning should fall on the public managers, not because it’s their designated role but because any failure in the infrastructure system will likely come from the public side.

While there may be infrastructure weaknesses all around, the private sector has a financial interest in ensuring its critical components are sound. At the same time, the public sector is notoriously underfunded and behind on its upgrades in many jurisdictions. This combination weights the scale toward a crisis coming from the public side, said Annie Searle, principal of risk assessment consultancy Annie Searle & Associates.

“The pieces on the private-sector side are in really good shape — they’ve maintained them,” Searle said. “We’re worried about the public infrastructure where the dollars may not have gone into either maintenance or improvement of the infrastructure.”

Still, it’s not an easy equation. With so many vital systems in private hands, the two sides must cooperate. This means overcoming jurisdictional vagaries, said Wendy Freitag, external affairs manager of the Washington State Military Department’s Emergency Management Division.

“They control access to it, and the government draws a line and respects that ownership,” Freitag said. This has practical implications. Take the scenario in which hurricane debris lands on private property. Government responders won’t move on that. Now suppose that private property is a reservoir, whose compromise might contaminate the water system. Jurisdictional concerns may keep responders at arm’s length.

Adam Stone  |  Contributing Writer

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine. Stone writes on business and technology from Annapolis, Md. He also contributes to Government Technology magazine.