Hurricane Sandy Showed Importance of Critical Facilities Site Selection

  November 13, 2015

Hurricane Sandy brought home a dilemma facing a New Jersey county involved in the development of a regional emergency communications and emergency operations center. This dilemma extends to site selection in other critical facilities as well.

The county has several existing critical facilities that are sited along the coast or on barrier islands and have limited resilience against a storm the size of Sandy. Those sites serve critical public safety functions. But when Sandy hit, flooding and storm surge inundated shore towns, shutting down some critical facilities and creating conditions that compromised services provided by critical infrastructure that didn't go down. In one case, a fire started due to an electrical short caused by floodwaters, filling the government facility containing the local emergency communications center with smoke and the real threat of shutdown. While the situation was ultimately brought under control, the site showed the risks of its location, especially the lack of resiliency planning for critical utilities supporting operations.

The regional emergency communications and emergency operations center is being planned for a site well inland. That's possible because of advances in communications technology, which have made emergency communications facilities less directly grounded in the communities those facilities serve.

But regional sites do have a drawback. It has to do with the distinction between emergency response, and emergency communications and management. In a storm, many of the individuals working in an emergency operations/emergency management center may also be the same folks directing field operations. These people have to go back and forth from the emergency operations center to the field during the storm and in the aftermath of the event. It's worthwhile to locate the facility to make it easy for those people to get from the field to the emergency operations center and vice versa, but only to the extent that a facility isn't then in jeopardy because of its location. In such cases, there may be a risk/reward calculus made based on staff responsibilities outside a secure, critical facility.

Emergency communications is typically the sole dedicated responsibility for communicators. The safety of these individuals, and their ability to ensure the safety of their families, suggests siting the facility beyond the reach of the most severe effects of coastal storms. Such remote siting also provides a further buffer to problems with utility and emergency communications infrastructure. Careful analysis of circumstantial threats, vulnerabilities, and potential disaster scenarios is at the core of defining criteria vital to secure site selections.

Today’s tip comes from Timothy W. Lisle.

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