Homeland Security and Public Safety

InfraGard Increases U.S. Security One Relationship at a Time

One of the largest volunteer organizations dedicated to critical infrastructure protection benefits industry and government but often flies under the radar.

Public-private partnerships are a hot topic these days, but it’s not a new idea for many representatives of the critical infrastructure sectors.

InfraGard — an under-the-radar FBI-sponsored volunteer program — has been promoting this type of collaboration for the past 16 years. The program builds relationships and provides training for its more than 50,000 members. In addition to creating and enhancing communications between government and industry, it has developed relationships that proved to be critical during times of need.

InfraGard began in the FBI’s Cleveland Field Office in 1996 when local IT representatives helped the bureau with a cybersecurity case. The benefits of such a partnership were realized, and the program spread to other field offices and became a national program in 1998. 

“A piece of classified information has little value unless you have the context that goes with it,” said Sheri Donahue, a member of the InfraGard National Board of Directors. “They realized the benefits of professional networking. It also helped the private sector understand and appreciate the security threats that impact multiple sectors.”

Today the 84 chapters are linked to the FBI’s field offices and each is assigned a special agent coordinator from the bureau. The program has expanded and continues to aid FBI investigations while showing how valuable these connections can be during an emergency.

When the Interstate-35 bridge in Minneapolis collapsed on Aug. 1, 2007, resulting in 13 deaths and more than 100 injured, additional support came in the form of the Navy dive team. However, the more than 30-person team needed secure access near the Mississippi River. A request was sent to the area’s InfraGard members that the team needed a location to work from, and within 10 minutes there were about seven responses from members about potentially suitable commercial sites.

“A simple request along those lines, but one that was needed with urgent coordination, really showed the value of being able to communicate and coordinate between the public and private sector right then and there,” said Elizabeth Stevens, who at the time worked for Ameriprise Financial and currently is the director of enterprise resiliency and response for the UnitedHealth Group.

That was the catalyst for the private sector creating an agreement with Minnesota to get a seat in the state’s EOC to truly be part of incident command and response. The partnership, known as P2CAT for Public-Private Coordination and Action Team, was formed in 2007 to provide structure for sharing information between the state’s critical infrastructure representatives and the Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management division.

“We were trying to assert that our roles were the ICS/emergency management equivalent within the corporate realms, and once we were able to demonstrate with that bridge collapse event some level of value, I think that was the linchpin in getting that agreement finalized,” said Stevens who also is the president of the Minnesota InfraGard Chapter. (In 2007, Chris Terzich from Wells Fargo held the role of president.)

The InfraGard members’ roles in assisting with the response to the bridge collapse showed how useful the private sector could be during and after an emergency and helped open the communication line with the state.

In the early days of InfraGard, its main focus was IT and cybersecurity. Although the 9/11 terrorist attacks led it to take on the all-hazards approach and include all of the critical infrastructure sectors, cybersecurity remains integral to the program. Supervisory Special Agent Doug Dvorak, the program manager for InfraGard from FBI Headquarters, said that while cybersecurity takes third place on the list of the FBI’s priorities, it is part of all investigations.

Elaine Pittman  |  Managing Editor

Managing Editor Elaine Pittman has nearly a decade of experience in writing and editing, having started her career with The Coloradoan daily newspaper in Fort Collins, Colo. Elaine joined Emergency Management in 2008, and she can be reached via email and @elainerpittman on Twitter.