Changes in Critical Infrastructure in 2021

Lessons from this past year are vital to take into the new year

By Mark Ray

At the time of this writing, the vaccine for COVID-19 has just received approval in England and is anticipated to be approved in the US soon. While there is hope that the end of the COVID-19 pandemic is going to be in sight, it is important that the critical infrastructure sectors also take stock of some of the important lessons we have learned and changes made as a result of the response to COVID-19. The application of some of these lessons and actions have benefits beyond just the response to COVID-19 and should not be lost as COVID-19 moves into the past. 

The lessons learned from the response to COVID-19 can be a catalyst for all of us in the critical infrastructure sector to improve our resiliency for whatever the future has in store.”

One of the most apparent evolutions in the critical infrastructure sector is the shift to remote working. Remote working can provide employers with continued production and employees the ability to work and not use vacation or sick time (or use less) during situations where working out of an office is not feasible or access to the office is a challenge. Examples of this could include snow storms, parents that need to be home with sick kids, construction/repairs to the office, school/daycare closures, civil unrest restricting safe access/movement, etc. Remote working can also provide for a quicker response time to disasters as staff in some roles are quickly able to log in and be operational. Alternatively, staff that has their equipment with them at home could also respond to an alternate working facility if the situation is warranted. 

With the prospect of being short-staffed due to a sizable percentage out with COVID-19, some sectors put a lot of effort into cross-training staff so that there was coverage of essential operations. Cross-training staff has benefits beyond just providing for redundant coverage, it can also be part of longer-term succession planning, engaging employees by providing new learning and working opportunities, or as part of finding more efficient work processes. While the urgency to cross-train may be reduced in the coming months, it is important that the critical infrastructure sectors continue to integrate cross-training into regular training routines. 

In an effort to reduce the potential for spread of COVID-19, many facilities significantly restricted building access for non-employees (and in some cases employees). Methods used included limiting the number of people in a building at one period of time, designating enter and exit-only routes or restricting movements between specific areas within a building. Lessons learned from these access and movement restrictions could potentially be used to increase building security from a variety of possible threats. 

To minimize storage costs and inventory management, over the years many infrastructure sectors (both public and private) have implemented a just-in-time delivery model for supplies and materials important to their line of work. After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, there was a shortage of IV bags in hospitals because a number of the manufacturers had plants in Puerto Rico that had been shut down. In early 2020 when COVID-19 started to ramp up, there was a shortage in PPE (N95 masks, gloves, gowns, and other supplies) as well as toilet paper and other essentials. While the COVID-19 shortage was generally driven more based on a spike in demand and not cut in supply, the impact was similar in that critical infrastructure sectors as well as people could not get what they wanted or needed. The lesson to be learned by all is that it is important to consider supply chains and what inventory is essential to have on-hand for operations. Sectors should be looking into potentially storing a larger amount of certain essential items for their operations so that supply chain disruptions can be better absorbed to at least some minimum threshold. Where feasible, sectors should understand their supply chains and not just who their primary suppliers are, but the secondary and tertiary suppliers that are all linked in the chain. 

Finally, and I think most importantly, critical infrastructure sector partners look at relationships that have been built as a result of the response to the COVID-19 challenges. These relationships may not only be professional but personal. If nothing else, COVID-19 has really highlighted how inner-connected the critical infrastructure sectors are and just how intricate the dependencies are. The relationships that have been developed should continue to be nurtured and maintained. The lessons learned from the response to COVID-19 can be a catalyst for all of us in the critical infrastructure sector to improve our resiliency for whatever the future has in store. 

Mark Ray is the Director of Public Works for the City of Crystal, MN, and serves as chair of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s (CISA) State, Local, Territorial, and Tribal Government Coordinating Council. Mark is the past chair of the American Public Works Association’s (APWA) Emergency Management Committee.