Friday, May 8, 2009

Global efforts to protect critical infrastructure from terrorist attacks and disasters

Greetings from Europe!
I’ve just had two days of meetings in London. I joined representatives from the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and their counterparts from Great Britain, Canada, and Australia to share ideas about how to prevent catastrophic failures of critical infrastructure . We’re here because governments around the globe worry that the electric power grid or the water distribution system, among others, may fail during a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. The multitude of failures and the ensuing chaos that resulted from Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 have helped to fuel these concerns. (Douglas Brinkley’s book “The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast” by Douglas Brinkley,” 2005, gives an excellent review of the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina).

Our conversations are focused on computer simulation models that predict how critical infrastructures will fare if they are subject to a disaster. Modelers imagine threat scenarios (for example, a magnitude 7.5 earthquake hitting southern California) and then run the models to see what types of interventions would be helpful in preventing damage and loss of life. Interventions can be measures like strengthening building foundations, or adding sensors to detect malicious activities, or evacuating an area after a toxic chemical has been released into the air. DHS has a list of the scenarios it worries about the most and uses the models to simulate: (, p. 37).

In London this week, at the meeting in London, modelers and managers of modelers from all over the world came together to share information about state-of-the–art methods in critical infrastructure modeling in their countries. The Representatives from the United States talked about the 100+ models they have developed to represent various infrastructure systems. These models are run by Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Students, take note: Sandia has an internship program for engineering students. See

One thing we agreed upon at the meeting is that engineers by themselves cannot create the best infrastructure models: we need the help of “subject matter experts” who understand the individual infrastructures such as medical personnel for the public health system and police for the public safety system. Together, working as a team, the subject matter experts and the engineers can create realistic models (programmed in Java, or a software program like VENSIM for systems dynamics modeling). With these models, we can predict things like expected loss of life, the amount of money lost to the economy, and the number and types of infrastructure elements (like an electrical power plant) that will be damaged.

A good example of a useful model is the one that DHS created for the pandemic flu in 2006. The outbreak never occurred, but the same model is being re-run for the HiN1 virus threat. The results go directly to President Obama’s advisors to figure how to react to a swine flu epidemic. You can read about the model that is being used and the results of the study at: