Preparedness 101 & Beyond by Catherine Feinman
Critical infrastructure, sustainability, and resilience have become key terms within the infrastructure design, emergency response, and governance communities over the past decade. Discussions on these topics began much earlier than 2001, but the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States certainly galvanized the discussion and, more importantly, provided funding for practitioners and academics to explore novel ideas and methods. The consequences of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 further shaped these discussions, which increased the focus on infrastructure.
Until those incidents, intelligence and law enforcement seemed to have a dominant role in national and regional discussions because of the 9/11 attacks. However, since the 2005 hurricanes, subsequent events such as the 2013 Boston marathon bombing and natural disasters – including the 2011 tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri, and Superstorm Sandy in 2012 – have broadened discussions on preparedness and response, while serving as test cases for the concepts and initiatives developed through multiple, broad-based, and parallel activities.
Testing & Exercising New Ideas
While additional “events” have served as laboratories to test novel ideas, academia also has responded by creating new courses and fields of study in the areas of critical infrastructure, emergency response, and resilience. The titles and topics for these courses and programs vary, including but not limited to: infrastructure protection, homeland security, infrastructure engineering, and critical infrastructure systems. Although these efforts are important and moving forward, they are still in their infancy.
An interesting exercise is to compare the new direction in infrastructure programs with the evolution of environmental science programs that emerged in the 1980s following passage of environmental legislation a decade earlier. For accreditation purposes, it is helpful to “benchmark” academic programs with programs from similar universities. When conducting such comparisons of environmental science programs during the early 2000s, the benchmarking process was found to be exceedingly difficult.
Those comparisons showed that even though the environmental science field had matured – as measured by a steady demand for graduates and the availability of course materials such as textbooks – there was no consensus or focus on subject material or agreement on “typical skills” for undergraduates. Environmental science programs seemed to reflect university-specific interests, which include microbiology, biology, ecology, geography, water resources, resource management, and legal subjects. As a result, it proved difficult to generally describe the interests or capabilities of a graduate or practitioner in the environmental science field, though many had demanding and rigorous curriculums. Although a lack of consistency proved inconvenient for an administrator preparing for accreditation, opportunities for college graduates from environmental science programs continued even though they were hired based on individual skills and work experiences rather than by academic degree or association with the environmental science field.
Developing Program Consistency
As programs of study that cross many disciplines, environmental science programs are producing graduates with skills that reflect institutional strengths and regional needs. In comparison, the civil engineering field has established a base level of subject matter understanding, which is combined with opportunities for additional focus based on student interest. At the undergraduate level, such focus typically includes additional courses in a focus area – such as transportation, structures, geotechnical, environment, and others – which builds on required, base-level study in these areas. For civil engineering, this process has led to the development of a “body of knowledge,” which through 11 topic areas provides direction and a measure of consistency for the education of people entering the field and the continuing education of those working in this profession. In fact, civil and other engineering fields now have their own accreditation body, Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), which provides standards and assessment processes recognized by most university accreditation programs and state licensure boards.
Practitioners heavily influence the content of these standards. Similar accreditation bodies exist for chemistry, biology, law, medicine, dentistry, and other fields. A result of such standardization is a general recognition of these professions or career fields by both specialists and the public along with the creation of career progression pathways. Such establishment of work disciplines has the benefits of: providing a foundation for long-term research; developing methods, standards, and codes for practitioners; and consistently educating and training entry-level through experienced practitioners.
This discussion highlights the diversity of approaches that already exist within education, training, and career development in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. As critical infrastructure, sustainability, and resilience fields continue to develop innovative ideas and standard methodologies, academic institutions create programs of study, and practitioners develop their areas of expertise, many questions emerge. For example, “Should these ‘areas’ follow (a) the environmental science model that has significant diversity in academic content and practitioner identity, (b) follow a “body of knowledge” approach, or require the creation of a model to meet new fields of practice?”
Perhaps a fundamental question before addressing the structure of these new fields is whether critical infrastructure, sustainability, and resilience are fields unto themselves or, alternatively, represent fields of integration that crosscut several disciplines. In current crosscutting fields, college graduates and practitioners associate themselves with their undergraduate or primary fields of expertise. As a result, graduate study or a career working in a crosscutting field becomes a requirement for association in that area. In short, some fields of work are not entry level.
Establishing a Collective Long-Term Effort
This discussion leads to the central question, “Are the preparedness communities collectively preparing for the long-term?” Although it may be interesting to participate in discussions and read articles or policy guidance concerning new directions in critical infrastructure, sustainability, and resilience, the topics under consideration too often continue reviews of unresolved fundamental issues. Clearly, the United States has made tremendous investments and accomplished great work, but the work itself may not be “resilient” within the knowledge base of design professionals, policymakers, and financial institutions, much less the American public who must live with and be protected by the results. If the acceptance – or lack thereof – of definitions for common terms used in these fields is an indication, perhaps the knowledge base itself is fragile.
With more than 12 years since the 2001 attacks, multiple critical incidents since, and significant investments of time, energy, and funding during the interim, now is the time to evaluate directions forward in the identification of fundamental skills, responsibilities, and career paths. As observed from the environmental science example, such key elements within a field of practice do not necessarily resolve themselves. Some level of institutionalization in these areas could be significant in establishing generally accepted concepts for design, operations, and maintenance of critical infrastructure and the broad application of such approaches.
An admirable quality by many discussants on critical infrastructure, and notably by members of DomPrep, has been a “can do” attitude. Recognition of the lives and property at risk by not acting promptly to provide sustainable and resilient infrastructure is a responsible and appropriate concern. The time, however, has come to focus greater resources on long-term efforts associated with critical infrastructure. Deliberate efforts to develop a new generation of professionals working with critical infrastructure now seem equally essential with addressing immediate risks to the safety, health, and welfare of the public.
It is important to recognize that efforts in these areas have begun, but the efforts are independent and do not have consistency in direction. There is a need for national-level leadership, and without such leadership, the direction forward in developing professional workforces is not clear. Concerted efforts by practitioners, academicians, and professional organizations will be required to chart a course for the “long haul.”