electric grid

All Roads Lead to Civil Defense

All Roads Lead to Civil Defense: Survival is a local Issue.

Civil DefenseCivil defense is the organizing and training of civilians to play key roles in a community’s survival. Another term for this, coined by Civil Defense Virginia, is “continuity of community.” The concept is simple: A community’s citizens, in partnership with their emergency management and local government, planning and preparing for disasters and having the ability to take care of their own. This is something that currently is not in common practice – and this needs to change.

Current FEMA Administrator Brock Long and former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate – emergency management leaders serving in vastly different administrations – have both told Congress essentially the same thing. It has been rare to see bipartisan agreement on any subject in the past decade, so we should all pay attention.

On November 30, 2017, current FEMA Administrator Brock Long told Congress:

We have to do more pre-disaster mitigation. Pre-disaster mitigation is the key to becoming more resilient and reducing disaster impact. We have to ensure that state and local governments…have their own life sustainment commodities capabilities and the federal government is not shouldering the entire burden…The key resiliency is held at the local level of government…it’s going to have to be a whole community effort on the pre-disaster side.

On March 30, 2011, then FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told Congress:

Government can and will continue to serve disaster survivors. However, we fully recognize that a government-centric- approach to disaster management will not be enough to meet the challenges posed by a catastrophic incident. That is why we must fully engage our entire societal capacity, leveraging trade associations, non-governmental organizations including those that represent different linguistic and ethnic minority groups, faith-based organizations, private industry, and social and fraternal organizations. These are the organizations that provide the bulk of services to communities every day, and to the extent that they are able, they should continue to be the primary provider of such services in a disaster. The quicker these entities are able to get back on their feet, the faster communities as a whole will be able to recover.

FEMA’s underlying message has not changed in the last two administrations: survival is a local issue. This is especially true if we suffer a national-scale disaster in the United States. If we are preparing for a “worst-case scenario” this message means we need local government and communities to be able to take care of themselves for long periods – weeks or months – when no outside assistance is available.

All Roads Lead to Civil Defense: This is a national security issue.

Local preparedness and resilience is essential to the national security of the United States: If there is a national-scale disaster, such as a loss of the electric grid for a substantial period, FEMA cannot helicopter in MREs and water to 35,000 towns and cities in the U.S.

To the extent that 35,000 towns and cities would be looking to the state and federal government to rescue them, the outcome would be cataclysmic. Millions of people will die of starvation, disease, and exposure waiting to be rescued.

Therefore, each local government, emergency manager and citizen plays a crucial role in the preparedness and resilience of the U.S. as a whole. And they must do this by working to make their local community prepared and resilient.

Developing local civil defense organizations is a resource multiplier for communities – and for the country. We cannot prepare 35,000 towns and cities and over 323 million people from the federal level. We cannot do it from the state level. It must be done from the community level by each individual community.

All Roads Lead to Civil Defense: The writing is on the wall – we must read it.

This is not a new philosophy. For one, FEMA has been stressing the importance of community preparedness for years. Exhibit A is an oldie but goodie from FEMA in 2011: “A Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management: Principles, Themes, and Pathways for Action.” So, in 2011 FEMA said:

FEMA began its national dialogue with a proposition: A community-centric approach for emergency management that focuses on strengthening and leveraging what works well in communities on a daily basis offers a more effective path to building societal security and resilience. By focusing on core elements of successful, connected, and committed communities, emergency management can collectively achieve better outcomes in times of crisis, while enhancing the resilience of our communities and the Nation.

Here’s exhibit B. In August of 2012, a bipartisan group of representatives in Congress introduced House Resolution 762. Unfortunately, the resolution never saw a vote and died with the 112th Congress.

The proposed resolution:

  1. encourages every community to develop its own “civil defense program” working with citizens, leaders, and institutions, ranging from local fire halls, schools, and faith-based organizations, to create sustainable local infrastructure and planning capacity, so that it might mitigate high-impact scenarios and be better prepared to survive and recover from these worst-case disaster scenarios and be better able to affordably and sustainably meet the needs of the community in times of peace and tranquility;
  2. encourages every citizen to develop an individual emergency plan to prepare for the absence of government assistance for extended periods;
  3. encourages each local community to foster the capability of providing at least 20 percent of its own critical needs, such as local power generation, food, and water, while protecting local infrastructure whenever possible from the threats that threaten centralized infrastructure; and to do so with the urgency and importance inherent in an all-of-nation civil defense program developed by citizens and their local communities; and
  4. encourages state governments and federal agencies to support the ability of local communities to become stronger, self-reliant, and better able to assist neighboring communities in times of great need.

I believe this resolution speaks for itself, and it is unfortunate that it didn’t pass. However, a good idea does not need to pass Congress to be a good idea. This is a great start for a local resolution in your town or a state resolution. The message is clear.

All Roads Lead to Civil Defense: Threats have evolved, and so must we.

For over two decades, the federal government and Congress have studied, researched, and held hearings on threats to the electric grid. (Click here for a comprehensive list of federal government documents on threats to the grid.) There can be no debate that a loss of the electric grid for any length of time – whether from natural or man-made cases – would be a catastrophic disaster. And one for which we are woefully unprepared. And threats to the grid continue to emerge.

Civil Defense Book 1966We face the increasing threat of a cyber-attack, such as the one that caused the Ukraine blackout in 2015. We face the 100% certain future threat of “space weather” or geomagnetic disturbance (GMD) such as the Quebec blackout of 1989. We face the threat of a coordinated attack by terrorists on key grid facilities (see the attack on the Metcalf substation). We face the threat of extreme weather as well as the fragility and complexity grid – remember, the Great Northeast Blackout of 2003. These threats are now joined by a nuclear North Korea which has specifically threatened an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, and other state and non-state actors such as Iran and terrorist organizations.

America – 35,000 towns and cities and over 323 million people – face existential threats. And yet, we generally prepare only for local and regional disasters that we have seen in the past (e.g., floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.). As former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate notes: “We plan for what we are capable of responding to.” We are not truly preparing for “all hazards” unless we begin to prepare for a nation-wide disaster such as the loss of the electric grid.

All Roads Lead to Civil Defense: Serving the under-served

I read a recent article that asked: “Is FEMA’s new preparedness posture a death sentence for the underserved?” It is a great question but I would argue that the opposite is true.

As Brock Long told Congress on November 30, 2017 we do not have a true culture of preparedness in the United States. I doubt many of us would argue this point. So if the baseline right now is that 99% of communities are unprepared to “help themselves” for a long period of time in a national-scale disaster (pick whatever percentage you think is accurate), this means that 99% of the country is expecting to be rescued – immediately after a disaster – with state and federal resources that we all know won’t stretch to fit this bill. This present result of our lack of a preparedness culture endangers the entire country. This does an even greater disservice to the under-served. Everybody in the country is in line for “rescue” right now.

So let’s say that all of us take up the call and build a true culture of preparedness at the community level. One at a time across the country we see community non-profit civil defense organizations form where citizens, their local governments, civic groups, businesses – all stakeholders in the community – work together to change the preparedness culture in their particular community. One by one at first, but with the momentum that we the local leadership can provide, soon we see scores, then hundreds, then thousands of communities across the country taking ownership of their pre-disaster mitigation, preparedness and resiliency. This benefits the under-served within those communities. Not only does it make more and more of America prepared and resilient to survive for a long period of time, it also leaves more state and federal resources available for places where they are really needed – including the truly under-served and challenged areas.

And if these individual communities are more prepared and more self-reliant, they are more able to assist neighboring communities that need help.

All Roads Lead to Civil Defense: Conclusion

What is the downside to building a culture or preparedness in the United States? I see none. What is the downside to new non-profit local civil defense organizations playing a key role in doing this? I see none. In fact, I see this as strengthening the resilience of the entire nation. Each community that works towards this goal is contributing to the overall national security of the whole.

If we are 99% unprepared across all communities now – the under-served are in the same “rescue me” line with every other community. If we substantially shorten the line, we are serving everybody and making more state and federal resources available to communities where they are immediately needed.

Our very survival as a nation in a (plausible) worst-case scenario depends on each individual community working to be as prepared and as resilient as it can be. As Aristotle noted: “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

A Sea Change in 2018 for Emergency Preparedness

“While each year the hurricane season comes to an end on November 30, the lessons from the response and recovery operations that we are performing this year, under incredibly difficult circumstances, will transform the field of emergency management forever.” – FEMA Administrator Brock Long, November 30, 2017.

Building a culture of emergency preparedness is now the national policy

A Sea Change in 2018 for Emergency Preparedness

Brock Long – FEMA Administrator

On December 18, 2017, President Trump released his National Security Strategy which made building a culture of emergency preparedness the national policy. Two weeks before that, we heard FEMA Director Brock Long discuss the need to build a true culture of preparedness in the United States and that this needs to be a whole community effort. Mr. Long noted that we have to ensure that state and local governments have their own life sustainment capabilities and that FEMA was never meant to be the “first responder.”

What does this mean for emergency managers and citizens in our communities? First, we need to consider what happened in 2017, recognize a basic vulnerability in our default mindset and to consider the effect it has had over the years on our emergency preparedness. Finally, there is a solution. And the solution requires all of us.

The strength of our emergency management system is also a critical weakness

We operate under a basic principle: when an incident overwhelms the local capabilities, we can bring in outside resources from surrounding towns, the state and the federal government. This principle has served us well in disasters large and small. But have we grown dependent on this principle as the answer to every disaster? We depend on the availability of outside resources. Help is always a phone call away.

Until it is not.

In the fall of 2017, the U.S. was struck by 4 major disasters in rapid succession: Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria and the unprecedented California wildfires. (See Brock Long’s testimony to Congress here.) While each of these was a regional event – not a national disaster – taken together, they strained FEMA almost to the breaking point. FEMA was heroic, dedicated and I can’t identify anything worthy of criticism in their responses to these catastrophic events.

In the case of Maria, as Mr. Long points out, FEMA ended up as “the primary responder and pretty much the first responder, which is never a good situation. When FEMA is the first and primary responder, and the only responder for many weeks, we are never going to move as fast as anybody would like.”

One emergency management professional had this comment on one of my previous articles on this subject:

“In my many years of experience, we have created an environment of entitlement. The first question asked should be: ‘what do I need to prepare or recover?’ But unfortunately, it is often: ‘what are you going to do to help me prepare or recover?’ And one step further in some cases, the latter is in a form of a statement rather than a question.”

But honestly, as bad as it was, the fall of 2017 was not a “worst-case scenario.” I say this because in each event – and in all 4 events collectively – outside resources were available to be deployed into the disaster area(s). Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and California made the call and the federal government answered and responded immediately.

What is a worst case scenario?

A worst-case scenario would be when our primary assumption fails us: there are no outside resources available for a long period of time. Nobody answers the phone call for help. The nightmare of any emergency manager or citizen: Your town is on its own and the cavalry is not coming.

Emergency PreparednessThere are many plausible scenarios where this could happen, but the easiest to illustrate the point is an event that takes down a substantial portion of the electric grid. For example, a cyber-attack, an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), a geomagnetic disturbance (GMD or solar flare), a coordinated terrorist attack, extreme weather, etc.

In this scenario, substantially the entire United States becomes the disaster area. And in each affected town and city the only resources available are what you have right now. Every town around you is in the same boat and the whole country is taking on water fast. But you don’t have time to think about that. Your local real-world problems are mounting:

  • The power is completely out for the foreseeable future.
  • Your local ham radio operator reports that the entire country is in turmoil.
  • People are panicking – the stores and pharmacies have been looted.
  • The police don’t have the resources to maintain order.
  • Water and sewer service is out. Well pumps don’t work without electricity.
  • People will soon run out of whatever food they have.
  • There are reports of numerous fires – the fire department is overwhelmed.
  • The medical facilities are overwhelmed, have no power and limited supplies.
  • People are at risk of exposure to the elements and disease.

There is no help coming – your town is on its own.

The federal government is thinking about this. The National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2017 requires that the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security “include in national planning frameworks the threat of an EMP or GMD event.” FEMA recently released its “Power Outage Incident Annex: Managing the Cascading Impacts from a Long-Term Power Outage (POIA).” In fact, the federal government has been studying, debating and holding hearings for two decades on such threats. (See an extensive list of federal documents here.) Most of America has not been paying attention.

We ignore these threats – and the possibility of a national-scale catastrophe – at our peril.

Survival is a local issue – the cavalry is not coming

Even if you find it “unlikely” that a worst case scenario could happen, planning for it has great benefits to your community’s emergency preparedness. If we have planned for the worst case, we have thought about and planned for the problems we would face in our community in all hazards and in any disaster. We are more prepared and resilient as a community. Nothing wrong with that.

Emergency Preparedness

Over three months after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, there are still many people without power and access to clean water. So we can’t say that we can’t envision a scenario where things might be bad for a long time – weeks or months. And remember: this is “only” a regional disaster – Puerto Rico is not on its own. We have been able to devote massive national resources to the problem and it is still this bad!

We all need to ask ourselves: What would our community do if we were on our own for an extended period of time? What can we do now to give ourselves the resources and options that we’d need? (Does this sound suspiciously like “pre-disaster mitigation”?)

A thought that probably comes to mind: we don’t have the resources – nobody does. True, if we think inside the box. We usually think of resources as a budget line item.

But there is a way to create our own resources in our community. This is the key. We need a resource multiplier.

Brock Long told us how

His exact words: “The key resiliency is held at the local level of government…it’s going to have to be a whole community effort on the pre-disaster side.”

The community is your resource multiplier. Think of it. In your community you likely have people with every needed expertise:

  • Doctors, nurses, EMTs and paramedics.
  • HAM radio operators, communications experts and electrical engineers.
  • Experts in various crafts such as construction, welding, plumbing and electrical.
  • Former military and retired law enforcement personnel.
  • Former Peace Corps volunteers who have worked in austere environments.
  • Farmers and people who are experts in food production.
  • People with homesteading knowledge who can teach others self-reliance skills.
  • Health, safety and sanitation experts.
  • Mechanics and engineers.
  • Faith-based and non-profit groups experienced in disaster relief, outreach and fund raising.
  • Business owners who know how to get projects from concept to production.
  • Regular citizens who are willing to help in a variety of capacities.
  • Etc., etc.

For virtually any problem that you can think of in a “worst-case scenario” you likely have somebody with the expertise to find solutions. Right now, these are your untapped resources. We just need to find ways to engage them.

It’s too late after the disaster happens (when we will all have an awful case of “gee, I wish we had…”). This is why meaningful pre-disaster mitigation is critical. Let’s identify the problems and solutions now – and, most importantly, work to have solutions and resources ready when a disaster happens.

Build a town civil defense organization

Civil defense is the organization and training of citizens to play a key role in the community’s emergency preparedness and survival after an attack or disaster. So, if we can somehow organize the above resources (people and expertise) and focus the organization on pre-disaster mitigation, imagine what we could do. And we have not touched the town emergency preparedness budget.

One way to do this is to set up a 501(c)(3) nonprofit civil defense organization in your community. (Some volunteer ambulances and fire departments are structured this way.) The organization can raise its own funds through donations. You can use an existing plan or create your own.

The important thing is to tap into this vast resource pool in your community and focus (i.e., lead) the community’s efforts in emergency preparedness.

You can’t do it alone or with your present budget. The good news is that you don’t have to. The cavalry is not coming. It is already in your community.

GridEx: Is This Exercise Enough to Protect Critical Infrastructures?

GridEx bottom line upfront

GridEx is a biennial exercise run by North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). The latest iteration, GridEx IV, was held on November 15-16, 2017. Most Americans have never heard of GridEx and didn’t even know it was taking place. If fact, most people don’t really have a clear understanding of what “the grid” is and what role NERC (a private not-for-profit corporation) and the federal government play in regulating the grid.

Bottom line up front:

  • GridEx is a voluntary exercise designed to test the grid’s response to large-scale power outages.
  • GridEx lacks transparency – very little public information is available. NERC says: “Due to the sensitive nature of the scenario discussion, this exercise program is not open to the general public or the media. A public report will be available after the exercise concludes.”
  • GridEx is held for two days every two years.
  • Very limited overview reports are available to the public for the last three GridEx exercises. They don’t say much.

GridEx is too little, not often enough and with little transparency. While any exercise involving testing the bulk power system’s capabilities, resilience and response is admirable and seemingly useful, it seems to me that GridEx is the minimum necessary for the bulk power industry to avoid having the federal government step in – which no industry wants.

But is GridEx sufficient to protect the United States from the catastrophic, existential threats to the power grid? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

What is the grid?


The bulk power system – or “the grid” – is not really one thing. The grid is actually thousands of companies, both public and private sector, that operate in an interconnected system to facilitate the generation, transmission and distribution of electrical power. The grid is made up of power generation – such as power plants, wind turbines and solar farms, high voltage transmission lines that span long distances across the country and local distribution lines which bring the power from the street to your house.

This interconnected (and vulnerable) patchwork is what allows the United States to support her human population. Everything that enables 325 million people in the country to survive is wholly reliant on the grid. All of our critical infrastructures – food, water, fuel, transportation and medical systems are all 100% dependent on the grid.

How is the grid regulated?

GridEx FERCThe grid is self-regulated (similarly to Wall Street). The federal government under current law can’t tell “the grid” what to do. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) is a not-for-profit corporation. It acts as the self-regulatory organization “whose mission is to assure the reliability of the bulk power system (BPS) in North America.” The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is an independent federal agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas, and oil. FERC’s specific authority over the electric grid is to “oversee the reliability of the bulk power system.” The regulatory scheme of the grid between NERC and FERC is mind-numbingly complex. (Just the way most industries prefer their relationship with the federal government to be.)

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 added Section 215 to the Federal Power Act. This gave FERC the authority to certify an organization as an “Electric Reliability Organization” (ERO) which would develop reliability standards for the industry, subject to FERC’s approval. Yes, you read that right – the industry writes its own reliability standards.

On July 20, 2006, FERC certified NERC as the ERO. Other entities objected and administrative appeals and litigation ensued. Section 215 does give FERC the authority to “upon its own motion or upon complaint, may order the Electric Reliability Organization to submit to the Commission a proposed reliability standard or a modification to a reliability standard that addresses a specific matter if the Commission considers such a new or modified reliability standard appropriate to carry out this section.” In English, FERC can order NERC to develop a particular standard and submit it for FERC’s review and approval, but this again is very time consuming.

Thus, FERC (the government) can’t easily tell NERC (the industry) what to do: There is a convoluted and time consuming rule making process involved. Before FERC can order NERC to take any action, they have to issue a proposed rule, solicit and consider any public comments (including those of the regulated entities and their representatives) and then issue a final rule (which is subject to industry lawsuit). This can take an incredibly long time. In terms of “sausage making” this rule making process is no way to get anything done quickly. A final rule can literally take years to issue. In some contexts, perhaps this regulatory scheme makes sense, but the protection of the grid and the dependent critical infrastructures is a national security issue – an issue of survival for families and the country. But it gets worse.

There is no federal law that says that the grid has to protect itself from hazards and threats. In fact, as previously noted, “itself” is thousands of separate companies that regulate themselves through NERC. Our very survival is dependent on the industry’s willingness to do the right thing. They are not required to do the right thing. This is why, in my estimation, GridEx is the bare minimum that the industry felt they had to do to avoid the government getting off its slow and lumbering buttocks and doing something drastic to protect the grid – and the United States – from catastrophe.

GridEx is not sufficient to protect the United States from Catastrophe

The only thing standing between America and catastrophe are thousands of moving parts, a self-regulatory organization (NERC) and a regulator (FERC) with little actual power to protect us. Moreover, as we saw from the Great Northeast Blackout of 2003, a weakness in one of these thousands of moving parts can have cataclysmic consequences for the whole. In 2003, untrimmed foliage in Ohio started a chain of failures which resulted in a blackout for over 50 million people in the U.S. and Canada.

So, with the United States facing increasing threats from cyberattack, terrorism, electromagnetic pulse (EMP), geomagnetic disturbance (GMD) as well as the traditional threats to the grid, is a biennial (once every two years) two-day voluntary exercise enough? In the last GridEx (2015), only “364 organizations across North America participated in GridEx III, including industry, law enforcement, and government agencies.” 364 organizations out of thousands voluntarily participated.

The public reports from the three past GridEx exercises are not confidence inspiring. They lack detail about how the exercises were conducted. They are all spun to make each exercise seemingly a “success.” All objectives were met. Perhaps they were, but there is not enough detail to really assess how effective these exercises actually were. If you want to decide for yourself, here are the public reports.

In order for GridEx to be more meaningful, here is what should happen.

  • GridEx participation should be mandatory – this is an issue of national security.
  • GridEx should be held annually.
  • “Lessons Learned” should be turned to action items for NERC, FERC and DHS.
  • More information should be available to the public and press – In the GridEx III report, it actually said that they constructed the exercise reporting to thwart Freedom of Information Act requests!
  • The Department of Homeland Security should use this opportunity to implement the provision of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2017 that requires DHS to “include in national planning frameworks the threat of an EMP or GMD event.”
  • Congress should insist that the results of future GridEx events be reported to the House and Senate Homeland Security Committees.
  • Finally, local emergency management organizations across the country need to participate.

In sum, I am not against GridEx by any stretch of the imagination. I just think in its present form, GridEx is a paper tiger. And we live in a real jungle.