Article written by Ed Verbraak, principal Engineer at Orange & Rockland Utilities, Robolliance Expert
This year we mark the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. These events brought forth a significant change in how the world views emergency response. Despite previous instances of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, up until that day, they were not a serious consideration for many organizations or were very superficially covered in their emergency plans. Likewise, events such as wide spread pandemics had not been considered by many until very recently.
The lessons learned by the first responders on 9/11 were not lost on other agencies or organizations that provide critical services to the general public. The message was clear: any entity that provides a critical service to the public must have a well written and exercised emergency response plan. With that plan must be consideration of emerging technologies, like robotic security and safety assistance, to work with manpower to safeguard our infrastructure.
For their part, utilities and other service organizations reviewed, revised and in some cases, for the first time created emergency plans aimed at preparing them for potential disasters that might one day affect their ability to function, operate or even survive. However, looking at the bigger picture, events such as 9/11, terrible as they may be, alone do not define the means or the manner in which we must prepare ourselves for the potential disruption of the critical services businesses and municipalities provide.
Emergency preparedness and recovery plans must certainly include many elements including a response to acts of terrorism and health emergencies. However, there are other factors that must be considered in order for a plan to be relevant and meaningful. Technological advances have made the execution of the menial tasks associated with being well prepared a non-issue, leading to better and more efficient use of available resources, both physical but also human.
A good plan must also have a business continuity component as well. Organizations that are ahead of the curve know this and have developed plans that detail the appropriate response for most situations that may result in a disruption of their operations as well as a plan to jump start the operation once any threat has been mitigated. These plans have been developed, drilled, are scalable and have been refined to ensure minimal downtime in the face of a crisis.
The importance of this last point could not have been more evident than in the wake of Superstorm Sandy which hit the east coast in October of 2012. This was an event on a scale not seen by many of us in our lifetimes, and one that caught many off guard. The level of devastation to impacted communities in many cases was simply overwhelming, and caused considerable pain and suffering as utilities, local governments, and other critical service providers struggled to restore the infrastructure necessary to deliver the essential services people have come to expect. Shortages of food, gasoline and limitations on travel beyond the confines of our local neighborhoods were simply not a consideration for many of the present generation having never experienced such a devastating event.
Physical disruptions to the continued operation of most organizations are no longer the only threats that need to be considered. This past month, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI reversed their previous stance regarding the severity of the threat to the critical infrastructures of electricity, water, financial, and transportation. We’ve seen numerous cyber-attacks on businesses and governmental agencies in recent years, including data breeches at large retailers, medical facilities being held hostage by hackers that had infiltrated their networks and an attack on the Ukrainian power grid.
If we have learned nothing else from these and other similar events, we need to recognize that emergency management and response must become embedded into the fabric of any organization that provides a critical service to its end users, be it utilities, hospitals or any other service organization. It is no longer enough to simply remain watchful to potential threats, or to maintain a good response plan for perceived emergencies. The melding of the technological advances of the past decade must also play a key role in any plan, be it response, restoration or just plain vigilance. We must use every tool, like Autonomous Vehicles advances, at our disposal if we are to be successful at maintaining our operations in the face of pending disasters, man-made or otherwise. But at the end of the day, our plans will not be judged by how good they look or how well written they are. Instead, they will be judged on whether or not they allowed us to maintain continuity of our business in the face of adversity.