Improving the Grade for Critical Infrastructure

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All infrastructure is not the same. Across disciplinary sectors, agencies and organizations must identify the key elements necessary to ensure “a system” (e.g., community) has a minimum level of resilience, as a system is only as strong as the weakest link.  The challenges of cross-cutting issues and limited resources for which disciplinary sectors compete, compounds the challenges. On 9 March 2016, DomPrep hosted a roundtable discussion in Arlington, Virginia, to address “Critical Infrastructure – A Failing Grade.”

This article summarizes that discussion, which included 27 subject matter experts from various sectors. Many reports address the status of critical infrastructure (CI) readiness, with these assessments reporting below par or failing grades. As a result, much of the U.S. infrastructure does not provide an appropriate level of resilience in the face of natural, human-caused, or technological disasters. Complicating the process of finding solutions to these challenges, infrastructure planning, design, operation, and maintenance are often siloed in responsibility, philosophy of design, and funding – though the infrastructure remains functionally interrelated to users. An added complication is that the response planning to disasters often follows the construction of infrastructure. As such, the purpose of the roundtable was to: (a) explore the intersections in the planning, design, operation, maintenance, and funding of infrastructure; (b) discuss commonly missed opportunities to better align infrastructure efforts; and (c) brainstorm opportunities to provide increased synergy in planning a “system” of infrastructure and disaster response actions.

Relationship Between Funding & Resilience

The discussion began with the question, “Is lack of funding the primary issue preventing the existence of robust and resilient infrastructure at the community or regional level?” Although funding is always a concern, there was consensus that a lack of appreciation for the risks and consequences to both human life and property loss associated with infrastructure resilience limits the emphasis by stakeholders and will of decision makers to provide funding. Participants made it clear that funding is a symptom, but the underlying problem is the public’s ability to appreciate the existing infrastructure situation. In addition, at the federal level, agencies are still being tasked with doing more with fewer resources, so funding is a great concern from that perspective. The key problem is that the need for resilience has not effectively been conveyed to policy makers, which has resulted in a lack of coherent policy, wise investment decisions, development of best practices, and consistent approaches to risk analysis.

There is a need to change the message to change the culture. Traditionally, there has been significant reliance on the government to “save the day.” However, it is time to encourage communities to take responsibility for building resilience into their emergency plans. Part of this “more effective” communication is the strengthening of social networks. By knowing what motivates human behavior, emergency planners can create messages that resonate with stakeholders. This may help form agreements on where to invest dollars and assets, and identify the probability and consequences of various types of incidents.

Where the Responsibility Lies

With crises being inherently local, the majority of CI being in the private sector, and everyone depending on the nation’s infrastructure – determining who holds responsibility for CI maintenance can be a challenge. After 9/11, some policy makers pushed to federalize the nation’s CI, but there are roadblocks to this way of thinking. For example, money cannot go directly to CI within the private sector, but there also is not enough money available at the federal level to meet all CI demands. As a result, one participant described it as creating a nation of “heroin addicts,” where communities are given enough money to launch the action, but not enough to sustain the initiatives.

Policy makers need to start looking at the dependencies – for example, losing water or electricity is also a major loss for a state’s economy – and getting the message out to community members that resilience is directly linked to both the immediate protection of human life and long-term economic vitality of a community. Engineers and designers must imagine the unimaginable and each community stakeholder has a critical role in addressing infrastructure issues. As such, emergency planners must collectively reshape the message to include all stakeholders, which should (but often does not) include customers of the infrastructure – for example, consumers of electrical power, water, and transportation routes.

People, policies, processes, technologies, and regulatory enforcement together would enable communities to rebuild resilient infrastructure. Then, there is the question about whether it is beneficial to rebuild at all. Unfortunately, disincentives exist that could promote waiting until after an incident occurs rather than spending money on an uncertain future event. Changing this incentive model requires building networks that drive good decisions. Insurance companies are key by not covering certain types of incidents such as flooding within the 100-year flood plain, which in turn forces people to rethink their rebuilding efforts once their properties are damaged or destroyed.

When considering the interdependencies, it is important to remember the horizontal as well as the vertical environments. This means that, beyond vertical supply chains, there may be horizontal interdependencies that are sometimes overlooked – for example, cyber issues cut across CI sectors. According to one roundtable participant, the power industry is not focused on cybersecurity, not because it is not worried about such issues, but because it has many other responsibilities and pressures to manage daily. The creation of an umbrella resilience plan could reach across sectors, assuming these sectors are willing to hold productive conversations that ensure protection of sensitive information. In any case, a fiscal model that shows profits and risks is needed to help stakeholders visualize the benefits gained by increased infrastructure resilience.


An imbalance exists with regard to regulation of CI – ranging from self-regulation in some industries to heavy government regulation in others. Regulatory change could make a difference, but it is difficult because of technical, economic, and business challenges. In the water and wastewater sector, investment for resilience is always competing with regulatory requirements and environmental concerns, which is particularly challenging because of mixed messages from the federal government – for example, issues related to the reality of climate change.

Then, there is the challenge of “selling” the concept of CI resilience and maintenance. For example, to receive adequate funding, emergency services agencies such as law enforcement need to sell the idea of nothing happening. When nothing happens, it could be a direct result of effective preventive measures and resilience investments. As these agencies plan now for budgets that will be implemented in two years, they may have difficulty getting the funding and resources they need to maintain the same level of resilience.

Another gap exists in the planning processes, which may be different for each agency or sector. Probabilities, risk assessments (levels of risk from various perspectives), and reliable intelligence could help identify threats and develop consequence-based models to help stakeholders determine what could happen (costs, down time, and other consequences) if they lose a building, power, etc. An evaluation of community or regional resilience is often an aggregate of resilience assessments within each of the sectors of law enforcement, medical response, fire protection, transportation, energy, and water. However, the resilience of a community is limited by the least resilient of these sectors – that is, the weakest link. It is essential for design professionals and practitioners across various sectors to identify the “system weak link” to properly assess community resilience.

Finally, there is a gap in what motivates change. One participant noted that higher impact threats, such as Hurricane Katrina, may not motivate communities to take action because they expect others will come to their aid. Although people do build in resilience after they see how much a disaster affects their lives, the areas that are not affected do not tend to change. For example, the areas directly affected by Hurricane Sandy are generally rebuilding to a better state of flood protection, but surrounding areas, not receiving storm damage assistance, remain the same. 


As discussed during the roundtable, the ongoing Flint Water Plant crisis in Michigan is not a catastrophic event, but it is a catastrophic failure and a reminder that resilience is related to chronic as well as acute events. Good planning, political will, and local community leadership help to drive resilience as has been demonstrated in multiple case studies. For example: (a) a couple years ago, Boston, Massachusetts, began an aggressive building code plan for sea-level rise and other major catastrophes; and (b) Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine use the same methodology to measure assets and bundle bridge contracts. It is important to be able to build not to the standards that something was, but to what it could be.

A holistic approach to CI resilience that places less emphasis on funding and more on leadership is needed at all levels. Agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and directives like Presidential Policy Directive 8 (PPD-8) are increasing resilience into their processes, but more needs to be done – perhaps, as participants suggested, it is time for a National Resilience Act that helps to:

  • Identify “pain points” such as water, information technology security, and other areas wrapped around quality of life, quality of service, and the economy;

  • Share information from CI owners about potential failures;

  • Oversee and define an analytical framework by the federal government;

  • Unify efforts to increase cost-effectiveness and reinvest the savings – for example, transportation planning in the United States for road, rail, waterborne, and air travel, which is often planned and funded separately;

  • Encourage tangible actions from design professionals, practitioners, and academia to develop new – and retrofit existing – infrastructure;

  • Plan with a regional, multidiscipline, and forward-thinking approach; 

  • Shift from focusing on the risk to or impact on the infrastructure, to a focus on the risk to and impact on the nation;

  • Plan and exercise (tabletop or full-scale) for long-term power outages;

  • Insert annexes into emergency plans to address high-impact threats;

  • Promote operator-to-operator discussion to approach how to restore operations;

  • Change university-level education and practitioner training to better prepare design professionals, and other graduates associated with the development of “adequately resilient” infrastructure, to meet the challenges of today;

  • Develop information-sharing protocols to share sensitive information and analysis to deal with real choices;

  • Create models that overcome the focus of attention on the day-to-day tasks that may overshadow the big picture;

  • Recruit experienced people on the code-writing committees to write in resilience and enhanced operability and sustainability as codes and standards change;

  • Collaborate with economies of scale for data interoperability between jurisdictions – for example, cost savings associated with resource sharing; and

  • Link local priorities with national issues to align strategic life-and-death issues.

Society’s ability to maximize efficiency by centralizing its infrastructure has resulted in too many dependencies. However, as one participant emphasized, CI protection is not an “all or nothing” venture. Even a little action would reduce the amount of time and money needed to be resilient. Given that much of the United States – and the world in general – has infrastructure in place, the integration of infrastructure both within and across infrastructure sectors cannot be destined to always be a series of “Band-Aids.” It is time to look for a feasible systems-based approach. Given that monetary funding is always a fundamental limitation in infrastructure development, within and across sectors, actions must go beyond funding to force, coerce, or incentivize better integration and development of adequately resilient infrastructure.

A special thanks goes to all the roundtable participants and sponsors, including: Mark Adamchik and Al Piombo, United States Park Police; Steven Bieber and Chris Ryan, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments; Marko Bourne and Gary Leatherman, Booz Allen Hamilton; Jerry Brashear, The Brashear Group LLC; Thomas Clark, Parsons; John Contestabile, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory; Robin Frazier, Carroll County Commissioner; Matthew Gabry and Majoraca Weber, Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency; Sarah Gambill, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Infrastructure Protection; Dana Goward, Resilient Navigation & Timing Foundation; Brandon Graham, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority; David Kaufman, CNA Safety and Security; Sandra Knight, Center for Disaster Resilience; Thomas Lockwood, Formerly U.S. Department of Homeland Security; Chuck Manto, InfraGard (EMP-SIG); Renee Parker, AFG Group; Glenn Previtera, AECOM; Valerie Reed and Bill Scott, ABS Consulting; Mark Reuther, PROENGIN Inc.; Andrew Roszak, Child Care Aware of America; Timothy Stickler and Erica Wolfkill, KD Analytical; Dave Wegner, Jacobs Engineering; Kelly Woods-Vaughn, InfraGard National Members Alliance and Catalyst Partners.

Joe D. Manous Jr., P.E., Ph.D., D.WRE, is as a water resources engineer and manager of international activities for the Institute for Water Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He specializes in the areas of water resources and environmental security issues associated with water. He is active in the American Society of Civil Engineers, Society of American Military Engineers, SAME-The Infrastructure Security Partnership, and the National Institute for Engineering Ethics, and has worked on a variety of infrastructure, professional development, and college outreach initiatives. Previously, he served as an academy professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he taught courses in environmental engineering, water resources, and environmental security. He is currently an adjunct professor at George Mason University, teaching courses in water resources and engineering economics.

Catherine Feinman joined Team DomPrep in January 2010. As the editor-in-chief, she works with subject matter experts, advisors, and other contributors to build and create relevant content. With more than 25 years of experience in publishing, she heads the DomPrep Advisory Committee to facilitate new and unique content for today’s emergency preparedness and resilience professionals. She also holds various volunteer positions, including emergency medical technician, firefighter, and member of the Media Advisory Panel of EMP SIG (InfraGard National Members Alliance).



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