Parts Of Why This Could Be Bad - Continuity, Complexity, Cascading Effects

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Monday, March 9, 2020

The darkest areas I've ever worked in in disaster management are continuity planning, and pandemic planning. The worst-case scenarios are usually too much for most people to take seriously.

Here's an example of a worst-case scenario from continuity-of-government (COG) work. I'm with a boss in a federal department meeting with a tech contractor about hosting a mirrored server with our critical continuity data outside the blast zone. Suddenly he figures out why we're planning this. "Blast zone? What do you mean? Like you're putting this in place in case the whole Washington DC area is blown away? WHAT???"

Yep. And let me tell you, some of the continuity of operations program (COOP) work that I've done in exercises has been haunting because most couldn't take the worst case scenario and cascading effects seriously.

I took one job specifically where I could see into some of this so I would know if the US government could handle a catastrophe. I concluded then that we couldn't. And that was well before the Trump Administration. The difference with them is they're actively making it much worse, not just failing to handle it.

Not long after I figured this out about government, I started to figure out what we did need nationwide to deal with the next catastrophe. Because one is always coming.

Also because the other darkest work I ever did is pandemic planning.

I worked in the Office of Infrastructure Protection in the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) when I first touched pandemic planning work. Crisis and contingency planning in infrastructure is always about interdependencies and cascading effects. When you look at what they could be in a catastrophe, it's one thing. When you look at what they could be in a pandemic, it blows the mind.

We're not even there yet.

What am I talking about? What I'm talking about is when people who work in critical infrastructure get infected or quarantined. It may not be as big of a deal for a larger utility, for example, but for a smaller one - a staff shortage can be significant. I live in a small city with a municipal utility. Not a lot of depth there.

If there is a power outage, water systems can go down. Factories. Businesses too. Also, water systems and things like refineries are hard to restart once they're out. You need big generators for that, of which there are a limited number in the US, and there's no system to allocate the existing ones to high priority public safety locations such as shared infrastructure. Plus it's hard for people to go to work with no running water, or power. Except people get groceries from businesses. Which could then be closed. But there could be supply chain interruptions from other people getting infected.

It goes on and on. These are cascading effects.

We know from DHS research that the majority of small businesses can't survive a week of closure from an infrastructure outage, like from a disaster.

One week.

One of the things that's happened since 9/11 and since Hurricane Katrina is that there is a gigantic framework in the US for public-private partnerships between infrastructure owners and operators and government at every level. In Iowa where I live, it's is called the Safeguard Iowa Partnership. At the national level there's a whole lot to it, broken into 16 infrastructure sectors.

The good news about now is that because of these gigantic partnerships, we know that many infrastructure owners and operators have considered pandemic planning and may have some resilience measures in place.

The bad news is that even if they did, those plans are probably outdated, and almost nobody has the financial depth to have fully covered for everything that would be needed for pandemic planning. We are farther along than we would have been if none of this planning had happened. But it's not enough. Nobody ever has enough to put into place for this kind of contingency.

Infrastructure is not all fixed in place and clearly delineated, like a pipeline. The reality is that most infrastructure is systems-oriented. It's heavily interdependent. And when it goes out, there are cascading effects.

Every single corner of our society is touched by this. Infrastructure sectors include everything from ag and food to water and sewer systems. It's postal and shipping, commercial facilities, energy, health and medical, emergency services, and transportation systems including rail, air, highways, and pipelines. Nuclear. There are more. You get the idea.

It doesn't matter that the mortality rate of COVID-19 is relatively low. It's about who exactly is vulnerable, and who is scared because they are vulnerable, and who is scared because they love people who are vulnerable. People who are over 60 or so, plus people who have asthma or immune system issues, plus all of their family and friends...

That's A LOT of people.

When you look at who exactly is operating and managing everything in our economy, it's a lot of the same people. The Venn diagrams would have major overlap.

When you add in high rates of spread in an interconnected world, and a government that has completely failed to facilitate large-scale testing that could help mitigate some of the fear... we're in the perfect storm.

This whole thing is going to be in large part about cascading effects - and not just from infrastructure. The cascading effects we've seen so far are mostly tied to school closures, travel limitations, event cancellations, and some supply chain issues having more to do with people buying out certain supplies than with supply chain disruptions. Every single person in every single place is going to need to do some serious problem solving.

We're going to need like "solution cells" just about everywhere. Including where everyone works and lives.

Including in your activist group putting political pressure on the government to make shift happen.

We need real money for local governments, local public health, local schools, and small businesses. We need money for innovation for problem-solving everywhere. We don't need bailout money for big business. We need help where we live and work.

We're going to need people. We're going to need to look after each other.

The way through this is with problem solving, resilience, connection, and community.

Humanity survives pandemics. What things look like on the other side is going to depend on what we do in the middle.

There are ways through. We will find them.

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This post was originally published on the founder's personal Facebook page here.

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