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Maintaining Resilient State & Local Assets in Utah

This blog post is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide, “Your Guide to U.S. Critical Infrastructure.”

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) provides a wealth of resources and guidance to regional and local jurisdictions, to help them protect and maintain critical infrastructure. However, Kathy McMullin, Planner with the Utah State Division of Emergency Management, described the necessary role that state government can play in providing more localized support.

McMullin works in Utah’s Infrastructure Resilience Program, which is charged with safeguarding Utah’s critical assets from manmade and natural disasters. “We’re working to make sure that we know what we have in each sector, especially the lifeline sectors (power, water, communication and transportation), and then understand where they’re vulnerable, what they’re dependent on to continue or to recover, and making sure that we can be available to recover and give a local jurisdiction the information they need to respond quickly,” she said.

Think Big First
That’s a large job, given the sheer expanse of even a single state’s critical infrastructure network. “Everything is infrastructure,” said McMullin. “So, what we try to do is think big first.”

When McMullin’s office works with a district, it starts by considering which infrastructure components might have the biggest impact on the community if they were to fail. For instance, if one facility employs a high volume of citizens, the local economy would be greatly impacted if the building had to be shut down due to service disruption or failure.

In some cases, McMullin explained that the “big” implications of an infrastructure disruption aren’t so clear. She offered an example: “We had a fire marshal who was responding to an emergency where the power had gone out. That seems relatively minor. However, the power was affecting both a nursing home and an airport,” she said.

That service disruption quickly escalated. Responders had to quickly determine which other assets might be impacted in the immediate area. For those local operations, like the nursing home, which they knew were impacted, teams also had to investigate which facilities had back-up power supplies and which were totally dependent on the grid.

“There was a little bit of chaos immediately as they were trying to determine, if we only have a certain number of resources that have to be dispatched immediately, where they should go first,” McMullin said.

Segment to Decrease Complexity
To avoid similar situations and help local jurisdictions quickly prioritize between sectors and assets, Utah’s Infrastructure Resilience Program breaks down sectors into smaller geographic segments. The team then works with individual counties to identify assets within those areas.

For more rural areas, McMullin explained that this process could be relatively straightforward given the limited population and assets supporting it. For denser population areas, her team sets qualifications to initially narrow the scope of critical infrastructure assets.

Prioritize With Standardized Scoring
Once a community has identified its assets, regional emergency managers can use the Utah Critical Infrastructure Prioritization Tool to determine which are most important to their local operations. While DHS provides similar tools on a national scale, this tool was created specifically for Utah’s environment.

The tool is an Excel-based program that calculates asset importance based on 10 standardized questions. Six questions investigate how important the asset is to the community on economic, symbolic, and service levels. The criteria even consider if the asset could be weaponized. Then, four additional questions determine the potential impact of that asset’s failure.

The tool’s real value is in its standardization, according to McMullin. It allows a local manager to prioritize every asset, from any critical infrastructure sector, by one set of criteria. “You can use it for mitigation planning, or continuity of operations plans. You can also apply federal grant money toward prioritizing your assets. And it also speeds up your response times in cases of emergency,” she said. “Ultimately, you improve your local threat picture. You can understand what you’re vulnerable to, and respond quicker using that score.”

Build Ongoing Relationships But while the tool empowers local authorities and businesses to manage their own assets, the Utah government continues to provide support and guidance. The tool allows managers to take ownership, but it also gives the state an accurate picture of asset ownership. “That’s another great benefit to identifying your critical infrastructure: You know your owners and operators, and you can offer them resources,” McMullin said.

That collaboration between the state government and local owners also lets the Infrastructure Resilience Program continually refine its processes and tools. In cooperation with Utah’s Protective Security Advisor, Ralph Ley, McMullin said her team “makes sure that everybody has the communication from federal to state, that we have those relationships set up so that we can get the resources we need, get the support we need, and make sure that the program is rolling out as smoothly as we like it to, and that we continually make improvements to it.”

That’s the ultimate goal of McMullin’s office – to continually improve. That requires building sustainable relationships between local and state critical infrastructure managers, in order to offer guidance, share resources, and prioritize the wide expanse of assets in Utah.

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