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Infrastructure threat analysis focus of new CIRI project

3/12/2018 Samantha L Koon

2017 was a record-breaking year for weather and natural disasters in the U.S. From wildfires in the west to hurricanes in the southeast and tornadoes and droughts in between, Americans experienced 16 weather or climate related events last year with an estimated loss of at least $1 billion each.
Source: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters (2018).
Source: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters (2018).

A new project supported by the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute (CIRI) aims to enhance one of the fundamental resources that community partners can utilize to prepare for, assess, and respond to natural and man-made threats. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region X has partnered with CIRI at the University of Illinois to inform one of FEMA’s key disaster preparedness tools, the Threat Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) program by developing a Power Grid Hazard Risk Profile. This profile will be included in the FEMA RX Threat and Hazard Analysis Report, a collection of threat and hazard risk profiles used to inform Region X THIRA reports in addition to state, local, and federal partners.

“A THIRA report provides an overview of the key natural, technological, and terrorism-based threats and hazards for a defined region,” says Alfonso Valdes, project lead and principal research scientist for the Information Trust Institute at Illinois. “Our aim is to enhance the utility of the reports by incorporating a more robust assessment of power grid threats, hazards, vulnerabilities, and resiliencies. The power grid is the critical infrastructure upon which all infrastructure sectors depend and understanding the complex dependencies and interdependencies is an important project objective.”

This project specifically focuses on FEMA Region X, which includes Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. This geographic region makes a compelling case study because it is subject to a wide range of natural hazards, including earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, severe winter weather, and wildfires. In addition to the natural threats, the region is also a potential target for a malicious attack due to the location of several large metro areas and the presence of headquarters for more than 30 Fortune 500 companies.

When natural disasters and malicious actions such as cyberattacks occur, the impact is often measured in terms of economic business loss. While this is a useful yardstick for comparing disasters across time and geography, there is also a social and community impact that isn’t always accurately captured by this type of measure. ‘Social impact’ is more difficult to quantify, but the project will attempt to assess things like the vulnerabilities of rural populations and tribal areas to an extended power outage, as well as the effect on commuters who may rely on public transportation to get to work and the grocery store.

“Power grid interruptions are disruptive regardless of when or where they happen, but in metro areas they can have a cascading impact that is especially crippling,” says CIRI director Dr. David Nicol, the Franklin W. Woeltge Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Illinois. “When the power goes out, obviously businesses and homes are immediately and directly impacted. But in a city like Seattle, when the busses and trains aren’t running, the impact is economic, social, and cultural. This project seeks to help infrastructure owners better prepare for and respond to power grid disruptions to improve how communities absorb the impact of an outage.”

This project will identify a comprehensive set of impacts caused by extended infrastructure outages. By examining hazards to the power grid and anticipated impacts, the report can define targeted strategies regarding hardening of critical assets, acquisition and placement of backup equipment and recovery resources.

FEMA Region X and Mr. Valdes have already convened a panel of topical experts to evaluate existing products and resources as a springboard for their deeper analysis. The final product will be an improved and more comprehensive Region X Threat and Hazard Analysis Report that will help inform utility managers, emergency management personnel, and critical infrastructure stakeholders. The new tool is expected to be of particular interest to public safety officials, municipalities, and infrastructure owners and operators as it will identify and prioritize risks, facilitate information sharing, recommend preparedness measures, mitigate impacts, and strengthen communication of priorities between utility owners and federal, state, and local agencies to support effective restoration and recovery efforts in the future.