Monday, October 01, 2007

Are We Prepared? Are We Sure?

An article from last week's Federal Computer Week was provocative in that it raises the question: How do we know we're prepared?

A misconfigured firewall that malfunctioned during a federal disaster preparedness exercise in April showed how tenuous disaster preparation can be.

Mike Nicholson, director of the requirements office of the information technology division at the Homeland Security Department’s National Protection and Programs Directorate, said the firewall problem prevented an Army unit from connecting with the Defense Information Systems Agency, almost scuttling the demonstration.

It took a month to get that resolved,” a delay that would not have been acceptable during a real emergency, Nicholson said.

That lesson highlights the reality that emergency preparedness requires training for almost every possible situation.

But many DHS officials say that even thorough training might not be sufficient. The most well-prepared plans can be derailed by the unpredictable nature of disasters.
Here's the thing: It's not how "well-prepared" the plan is. It's how adaptable it is. It's how flexible it is. it's how non-brittle it is.

You can plan and exercise your disaster strategy again and again, but it is still at risk if it is a brittle system, or if it relies on brittle systems. And we do have some brittle systems.
Other officials said a major component of disaster preparedness is coordinating with state and local governments. Although disasters typically are localized events, the federal response can be stymied by lack of local knowledge and obsolete information technology systems.

For example, making quick emergency acquisitions can be difficult because of regulations that require the government to spend some disaster relief money with local businesses to help rebuild economies in affected areas.

“The problem is trying to get these local communities acclimated to federal contracting,” said Tina Burnette, director of acquisitions management at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “The laws that govern federal contracting are complicated.”
Think about those highlighted words, and whether they signify an adaptable or a brittle system. Federal agencies lack knowledge of local assets (a solveable problem in an adaptable system, but an intractable one in a brittle system). We are burdened with old, unchanging IT systems. We box ourselves in with regulations and complicated contracting rules.

Adaptability is the key to survival, both in nature and in human systems. It is even more so during a catastrophe.

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