Crisis Action Plans for Critical Infrastructure: Learn from Flint, Michigan
By Kevin Kupietz, Faculty Member, Emergency and Disaster Management, American Military University
Modern emergency management services plan for disasters through crisis action plans, but are communities prepared for infrastructure failures, such as dangerous public water supplies?
The Crisis in Flint
For nearly two years, the city of Flint has been pumping contaminated drinking water into the homes of its residents. State financial managers running the bankrupt city decided to switch its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River in order to save money. Soon after the switch, residents noticed the water started to look, smell and taste funny, reported CNN.
As it turns out, the water in the Flint River is highly corrosive and the state wasn’t treating the water with anti-corrosive agents, despite a federal law mandating such treatment. The untreated water was leaching the lead and iron from the city’s water pipes.
After discovering dangerously high levels of lead in children—a condition which has well-known long-term developmental effects—action was finally taken to start fixing the water infrastructure. But determining the extent of damage to people due to high lead levels can only be determined by individual testing in each home, which will likely have to be done multiple times. This kind of response and action takes a great deal of planning, logistical support, operational resources and, of course, a lot of money.
The poor condition of Flint’s water infrastructure, even before knowing the water itself was contaminated, was not a secret. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) issued a report card that gave the state of Michigan a D for drinking water, citing an abundant source of fresh water supply, but numerous pitfalls in the treatment and distribution of the water through aging systems.
The state is not alone with its deteriorating and dangerous drinking water system. The ASCE also gave the national drinking water supply a grade of a D, citing an estimated 240,000 water main breaks annually in a system that is plagued by outdated pipes and many systems that are more than 100 years old. The ASCE’s report further estimated that more than a trillion dollars is needed to repair the country’s water infrastructure alone.
When looking at the Flint situation, if one were to ask if this, or similar events, could be experienced in other areas of the country, the answer has to be certainly possible if not a resounding yes.
Only through the vigilance of proactive emergency management systems can communities prepare for all of the possibilities of disasters and prepare appropriate plans.
What are Crisis Action Plans?
Crisis action plans are a staple of the emergency manager, a first-out tool used in times of disaster. It is a comprehensive written plan that provides action and guidance during a particularly defined emergency. This guiding document provides information on protecting lives, stabilizing an incident, conserving property, and even how to get back to a state of normalcy for the community.
According to the White House’s National Strategy for Homeland Security, “crisis action planning is a third key principle in our approach to incident management. This planning process takes existing contingency plans and procedures and rapidly adapts them to address the requirements of the current crisis or event of concern in a compressed timeframe.”
In addition the Department of Homeland Security, National Response Framework notes, “crisis action planning is the process for rapidly adapting existing deliberative plans and procedures during an incident based on the actual circumstances of an event. Crisis action plans should also include the provision of decision tools for senior leaders to guide their decision making.”
Crisis action plans are ideally constructed through group thought processes and tested during practical exercises long before a disaster strikes. Most communities have a wide variety of incident- or threat-specific plans that tie into the community’s emergency operations plan, which cover diverse emergency incidents such as active shooters, public health emergencies, severe weather, earthquakes, and, more recently, cyberattacks.
However, how many communities have written plans for widespread failure of critical infrastructure? How many communities would be prepared to act if they found themselves in a water crisis to the scale of Flint, Michigan?
Unfortunately, not enough. It is easy to identify the need for an emergency strategy for severe weather and even mass casualty incidents. It is harder to validate the need for an emergency operations plan to address a major infrastructure failure—something that many communities take for granted as secure and reliable.
The water crisis in Flint is a warning message to all emergency managers that they must include threats to critical infrastructure, including age and failure to maintain such essential facilities and plan appropriately.
Elements of Sound Crisis Action Plans
A good emergency operations strategy has to do more than just identify the potential of a disaster, but it must be able to look further at the possible outcomes and mitigation for each issue. In the case of Flint, the community is left with not only responding to the incident and correcting the problem, but also determining how to recover from it so the community can return to normalcy.
Getting Buy In
One of the biggest planning challenges for emergency managers is garnering the commitment and buy-in from political leaders and the community as a whole. It is important to involve a diverse group of people in working on a strategy that outlines policies and procedures for any type of response, especially in planning for the failure of critical infrastructures. The plan must anticipate all possible direct and indirect issues that may be brought on by the incident and cures.
Identifying Sources for External Support
Another important consideration when working on a crisis action plans is identifying where help can be found. Emergency managers must know what external resources can be brought to bear to help solve the problem at hand. All disasters are local and response needs to start with local organizations. What resources does the community have that can be used during a disaster? Remember to consider resources in the government, nonprofit, and private business sector.
In large-scale disasters, communities will require external help. Outside groups might include groups such as the National Guard, Red Cross, outside subject matter experts, and others. The plan should identify what agencies should be requested and how the request will be made so the process is efficient and timely. In Flint, a key player to identifying the problem and the true extent of the problem was a team of scientists from Virginia Tech who conducted tests on the water.
While external groups can be of great use, if an emergency becomes so great, overwhelming the abilities of the local and state government, assistance can and should be asked for from the federal government. Federal help has been requested for Flint and on January 19 President Obama declared the Flint incident a Presidential Disaster Area. Some may feel that such a declaration means that federal agencies take over the incident from the local officials. However, the federal government works with—and to some degree at the pleasure of—the local government.
A good plan should include how this coordinated response will work to promote efficiency and determine where the help can best be utilized. Likewise, the plan should discuss what happens after the federal government and other external partners leave.
For example, in Flint a team from the Department of Health and Human Services has been assigned to provide technical and other forms of assistance to Flint. This is a temporary posting, but it is predicted that the amount of health testing for those affected by the contaminated water will need to be in effect for years in order to understand and treat residents. A good crisis action plan will lay out a flexible road map to follow to a return of normalcy even when such partners are finished.
Emergency managers around the country need to be studying the situation in Flint and building crisis action plans that address many of the city’s short fallings. Is your community ready to face a similar disaster to its infrastructure? Such critical failures are a crippling event and communities must have plans in place to prepare and respond to such incidents. Lastly, but importantly, these plans must be practiced, evaluated, reviewed and updated. The best you can hope for is that these plans will never be used.
About the Author: Kevin Kupietz, Ph.D., is a firefighter and paramedic by trade with more than 20 years of experience. He has taught in traditional classrooms as well as in online formats for more than 15 years. He is an adjunct faculty for the graduate program of Emergency and Disaster Management at American Military University. In addition, he is a full-time school director of Fire/EMS at Halifax Community College in North Carolina. He also serves with the Roanoke Rapids (NC) Fire Department, RRT1 hazmat team and NC1 DMAT. He received his Ph.D. in human services, MS in occupational safety, and BS in fire engineering. In addition, he is an Executive Fire Officer (EFO) graduate.