Managing critical infrastructures presents a specific set of challenges to crisis managers. These systems include electrical power; communications; transportation; and water, wastewater, and gas line distribution systems. Such infrastructures undergird the continued operation of communities in a modern society. Designed for efficiency, these technical systems operate interdependently, which makes them vulnerable to the stress of extreme events.
Changes in population, demographics, land use, and economic and social conditions of communities exposed to hazards have significantly increased the number of people dependent on critical infrastructures in regions at risk. Although advances in science, technology, and engineering have introduced new possibilities for the redesign, maintenance, and retrofit of built infrastructure to withstand extreme events, the complexity of the task has exceeded the capacity of most public and private agencies to anticipate the potential risk and make investments needed to upgrade infrastructures before damage occurs. A mix of public and private ownership of infrastructure systems further complicates the task of ensuring public safety and security in crisis. Public agencies cannot protect communities alone. FEMA has developed a “whole of nation” approach to strengthen cross-jurisdictional linkages with state, county, and municipal emergency managers as well as private and nonprofit organizations.
Computational modeling facilitates the exploration of alternative approaches to managing risk generated among a range of actors, interdependent infrastructures, and types of hazard events. Advanced uses of sensors, telemetry, and graphic display of changing performance for critical infrastructure provide timely, accurate information to reduce uncertainty in crisis events. Such technologies enable crisis managers to track more accurately the impact of extreme events on the populations and infrastructures of communities at risk, and to anticipate more reliably the likely consequences of future hazardous events.
A basic shift has occurred in the assessment of risk. The focus is no longer on calculating the damage from past events, but on anticipating and reducing the consequences of future hazards, based on sound, scientific evidence as well as local experience and knowledge. Recognizing communities as complex, adaptive systems, crisis managers strive to create a continual learning process that enables residents to monitor their changing environment, use systematically collected data as the basis for analysis and change, and modify policies and practice based on valid evidence from actual environments at risk.
Visualization constitutes a key component of collective learning. In complex settings, people comprehend visual images more readily than written or aural directions. Using graphic technologies to display emerging risk at multiple levels simultaneously provides an effective means to guide particular decisions at intermediate (meso) and local levels of operation. For communities seeking to reduce risk, investment in information technologies to enable rapid, community-wide access to interactive communication constitutes a major step toward building capacity not only for managing risk to critical infrastructure but also in maintaining continuity of operations for the whole community in extreme events.