The world is an increasingly the turbulent place, with natural, man-made and emerging risks etching the landscape. 2017 may very well mark the beginning of what is now considered a normal year, where a volley of record-breaking hurricanes were only the exclamation marks of an otherwise calamitous cycle of events. Data confirms our fears that there is an unnatural increase in the rate of natural disasters. Indeed, in the 50 years up to the year 2000, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reported an average of 39 disasters in the U.S. each year. In the 18 years since 2000, the average number of disaster declarations in the U.S. equals 124 – a 217% increase.
Many of these smaller-scale disasters do not get recorded in headline news like last year’s devastating hurricane season, or record-breaking wildfires in California, but all of these events and their ensuing recovery efforts are made worse by the lack of a disaster-proof inventory of critical infrastructure, energy and telecommunication assets in stricken communities.
So much of what a modern economy relies on, whether it the electricity infrastructure, water, Internet and telecommunications hardware that we seem to take for granted when the weather is fine and there are no crises, very much depends on physical infrastructure. As we saw in relief and reconstruction efforts across the Caribbean, Houston, Florida, other communities, the inability to quickly identify, repair and or replace these assets makes for a prolonged recovery process that will not only hamper individual households getting back on their feet, but will erode economic recovery when it is most desperately needed.
The lack of a national inventory covering such critical infrastructure is not only a matter of where these assets are physically located, but what is attached to them, which can often be very precise and matter as much as the overall location and geophysical data. The ability to offer help and respond at a national level will be improved if asset information is centralized and readily available for the emergency response command centers. In a major disaster, rather than having to work with information that is being supplied by the affected areas in a piecemeal manner due to a breakdown in communication or the displacement of key personnel, a common critical infrastructure registry can speed up recovery efforts.
Personnel in affected areas are also coping with a crisis of their own and despite best intentions cannot be relied on in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. This much is true for first responders, as it is for technical personnel that understand the status, location and engineering specifications of critical infrastructure and physical assets. This challenge is then compounded by the fact that the mix of this infrastructure is held in both private and public hands and therefore data access requirements and speeds will go through layers of bureaucracy. Cell phone towers, for example, and other radiocommunication towers often hold millions of dollars’ worth of sensitive equipment, broadcasting assets, radars, and other sensors that go largely unseen throughout the year playing a vital role in our lives.
In a world increasingly defined by intangible technology and round the clock connectivity, having access to a very precise digital archive of these assets can not only help identify potential single points of failure and vulnerability, enhancing national security, it can help companies and communities accelerate their recovery process by knowing precisely where to focus their efforts and which systems are critical nodes or points of redundancy.
In Puerto Rico’s case, the energy grid not only failed because of underinvestment in electricity infrastructure across the island, it failed because the vast array of electrical towers, power lines and substations were destroyed by hurricanes Irma and Maria’s one-two punch. The same holds true of telecommunications equipment and other elements of critical inventory in the Caribbean basin, where 50% of mobile network operators were directly impacted and some operators experienced over 95% damage to infrastructure across several islands.
While the creation of a digital inventory that is recorded using 3D renderings of each specific location does not currently exist, developing such a registry will help create a more resilient economy – both from smoking crater risks and from intangible ones, such as cyber threats, which are showing an increasing propensity to leap from the virtual world to the physical one.
Indeed, for certain types of physical infrastructure, their rarity and age makes precise knowledge of their whereabouts and precise knowledge of what instrumentation may be attached to them critical. They are basically out of the digital layer and are often unaccounted for even if their proper performance is crucial to business continuity. Some energy subsystems, for example, may have fewer than 10 redundant parts or replacements available making the lack of information of their whereabouts, condition and other subcomponents or interconnections an acute vulnerability for the country. The hardware age and scarcity of these assets is rivalled only by the vulnerable software systems they rely on, such as SCADA systems and outdated Windows-based platforms that are well outside of the range of hygiene-improving software patches and system updates.
If all stakeholders worked in conjunction to take advantage of site surveys that review critical infrastructure, such as telecom or utility sites, to virtualize them in a digital inventory, the nation’s “break in case of emergency” options will be improved. While creating such a digital inventory may create information security risks of its own, which can be countered by leveraging blockchain, it certainly outweighs the alternative of flying blind following each disaster.