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Moving infrastructure resilience forward

Ernie Edgar | 14 Sep 2015 | Comments

Established in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, The Infrastructure Security Partnership (TISP) is a national partnership between government agencies, professional associations, private industry and individuals with the goal of increasing our infrastructure’s capability of withstand natural and man-made disaster events and maintain critical services.

Since January 2013, I have had the honor to serve as the Partnership’s Chair and I’m finally able to say that the concept of resilience (as advocated by TISP) has become widely accepted as a social and policy goal. We’ve begun moving the discussion from “what is resilience and why do we need it?” to “how do we get there?” Operationalizing resilience—moving it from concept to reality—is our primary focus.

Since our formation, TISP has succeeded with our partners in enhancing America’s national security by incorporating resilience policy. The National Security Strategy, National Infrastructure Protection Plan, Army Corps of Engineers North Atlantic Coastal Comprehensive Study, and the soon to be released National Institute of Standards and Technology National Resilience Framework all reflect TISP’s leadership and substantive input. Through these efforts our nation is growing stronger and more resilient to natural disasters and manmade disruptions, but there is much more work to be done.

All disasters are fundamentally local and need local solutions

Community resilience and sustainability are the linchpin of resilience on a larger scale. The national and regional constructs now need to be applied at the local level—in partnership between government agencies, the private sector and the public. Our efforts to include a local perspective in the latest version of the National Infrastructure Protection Plan was a significant accomplishment. From this healthy start, there are gaps remaining that must be closed.

The National League of Cities recently completed a survey of city elected leaders, city managers, planners, sustainability staff, and other officials and identified the following needs:

  • 44% of respondents indicated a need for assistance conducting a vulnerability assessment
  • 61% need assistance in identifying adaptation and resilience strategies
  • 72% need assistance in modifying outdated policy to include resilience
  • 81% need strategies to implement resilience activities

The challenge is how we will plan and then perform infrastructure design, construction, maintenance and operations in a time of declining resources to achieve resilience. TISP intends to leverage 100+ local posts of the Society of American Military Engineers (SAME) to present programs fostering public-private partnerships at the local level. These local SAME posts provide the framework for programs designed to address the gaps the National League of Cities identified, and to implement solutions such as those we’ve tested in TISP’s Regional Disaster Resilience Guide. The local structure and membership of SAME—combined with the advisory and facilitation role TISP has played nationally—provides a mechanism for local discussions and solutions to bubble up to policy makers across the country.

Future resilience means challenging college students to develop future solutions

We must challenge our students to explore different policies, procedures, designs and materials for the infrastructure of tomorrow. The Collegiate Infrastructure Challenge, which TISP introduced at this year’s Critical Infrastructure Symposium, provides an opportunity for students to engage critically, creatively and completely with a complex infrastructure problem, for which the teams must envision and describe a transformative solution. Five teams representing the Citadel, Virginia Military Institute, the U.S. Naval Academy and John Hopkins University considered the issues of today’s segmented national transportation system and conceived solutions for a future system that effectively and efficiently integrated Aviation, Highway, Maritime, Pipeline, and Railroad transportation systems. We hope to grow the Infrastructure Challenge into a national competition that includes many more colleges competing to develop resilient solutions for the 22nd century infrastructure we need.

Engineers are only part of the solution

As a society, we do not build infrastructure for engineers to use, we build it for society to use. Everyone has an interest and a role to play in the resilience of our infrastructure. By introducing engineering concepts to non-engineering students, our academic institutions can lead the education of our society on these important concepts.

A great example for future progress is found in Clemson University Engineers for Developing Countries—a student-run non-profit organization that has focused its work in post-earthquake rural Haiti. Through small-scale, village-sized projects the students conceive, plan, resource and execute, these young people have delivered water purification and distribution systems to remote rural communities not served by the national government. In the process, they have eliminated cases of water-borne disease from several hundred a year to near zero. One of the keys to their success is that students from all the University’s degree-granting schools participate—not just engineering students. Everyone has a stake and a role to play.

There is a temptation to believe the resilience of our infrastructure is only considered at a national level by seasoned engineering professionals inside our government. And while the government does consider these types of questions, that is not where the solutions will be found. Rather, resilience comes when we are all involved. As Chair of TISP, I ask you to stay engaged in this conversation, and to ask others to join in, as we all work together to decide how we can incorporate resilience into our infrastructure.