Critical-Infrastructure Update: The Essential Components of Domestic Preparedness

From the terrorist’s point of view, the list of possible targets is endless: airports and seaports; U.S. embassies overseas and major federal office buildings in the United States itself; nuclear power plants and offshore oil platforms; bridges and tunnels; factories and office buildings. All are rightly considered essential components of the nation’s “critical infrastructure” – and are essential because their destruction or significant degradation would be seriously harmful to the U.S. economy and/or national security.

There are other targets as well: theaters, hotels, and restaurants; well known landmarks such as the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the National Archives, Yankee Stadium, and the Epcot Center; even schools, churches, and libraries – as well as major sports and entertainment events such as the Super Bowl and Academy Awards ceremonies. Destruction of, or major damage to, any of these would not disrupt the U.S. economy – but would seriously harm the national morale and perhaps kill hundreds or thousands of Americans, which is always a collateral goal of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

The multiplicity of attractive and significant if not always critical targets within the United States, and overseas as well, is why the 9/11 Commission reluctantly concluded in its Final Report that it is not possible “to defeat all terrorist attacks against Americans, every time and everywhere. … No president can promise that a catastrophic attack like that of 9/ll will not happen again. History has shown that even the most vigilant and expert agencies cannot always prevent determined, suicidal attackers from reaching a target.” The suicide bombing attacks against hotels, buses, marketplaces, and both public and private buildings in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq validate that grim statement on an almost daily basis.

Moreover, the equally lethal attacks on the London bus and subway systems, against hotels and nightclubs in Jordan and Indonesia, and against scores of possible targets in Israel, show that terrorism in the 21st century is a truly international threat and will undoubtedly require a truly international effort to defeat it.

A Good But Hesitant Beginning

Winning the Global War on Terror will not be easy, though. The final defeat of Al Qaeda – however the word “final” is defined – and other terrorist groups linked to it, working with it, or perhaps operating independently, will take many years, perhaps decades, and will cost untold billions of dollars. It will also, in all probability, cost the lives of many more Americans, not only members of the nation’s armed forces – State Department employees as well – stationed overseas but also, on the home front, firemen, policemen, EMS (emergency medical service) employees, security guards, and other first responders.

Fortunately, many forward-looking steps already have been taken, particularly by the federal government – a fact not always mentioned in the U.S. print and broadcast media, and/or recognized by the American people. The Taliban were quickly and thoroughly defeated in Afghanistan, for example. And, despite the violent peace now raging in Iraq, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and his later capture and detention were major political as well as military accomplishments. In the United States itself, a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been established and, despite some initial difficulties, is now rapidly, and with reasonable efficiency, sorting out its goals and priorities, completing a major reorganization, and learning to speak with a common voice.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Congress has moved with unusual, and admirable, speed in passing important legislation such as the Patriot Act and has been extraordinarily generous in providing the funding needed by DHS and other departments involved in the fight against international terrorism. On the minus side, at least some of the projects funded by Congress are of dubious value, and the House and Senate both have been slow in reorganizing their committee systems to meet the new challenges facing the nation.

An Ample Spectrum of Blame

Not nearly as much has been accomplished at the state and local levels of government, though – or by the private sector. All states, and most if not quite all of the nation’s major cities, have established their own departments of homeland (or state, or local) security or the equivalent thereof. Some have been staffed and funded adequately, but most have not been – not, at least, if the goal is to be able to deal with all reasonably foreseeable threats. “Reasonably foreseeable” includes, of course, the threats posed not only by terrorists but also by hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters.

As was amply demonstrated by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma (and other recent natural disasters), the preparedness deficiencies at the state and local levels of government include but are not limited to a lack of planning, inadequate and insufficient training, the frequent inability of even neighboring jurisdictions to communicate with one another, and a broad spectrum of equipment difficulties ranging from system incompatibilities to inadequate stockpiles of protective clothing to maintenance and obsolescence problems of all types.

The biggest problems, though, are both political and financial: Almost all jurisdictions want and expect the federal government to do more – and to pay most if not all of the sometimes very high cost in dollars that is required to alleviate if not completely resolve all of the deficiencies and difficulties noted above.

Insofar as critical infrastructure is concerned, though, there are more and greater problems in the private sector than at all levels of government combined – if only because, as the 9/11 Commission also pointed out in its Final Report, the U.S. private sector “controls 85 percent of the critical infrastructure in the nation [emphasis added].” For that reason alone, the Commission continued, “Homeland security and national preparedness therefore begins with the private sector” – which, the Final Report added, “remains largely unprepared for a terrorist attack.” 

“Realistic and Achievable” Recommendations

That situation may be about to change, though – and in the very near future. In 26 October 2005 testimony before the House Science Committee, Dr. William A. Jeffrey (director of the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST) released a long list of well-researched recommendations that, if and when fully implemented, would: (a) lead to major improvements in building standards, codes, and practices; (b) mandate the establishment or improvement of evacuation routes and other emergency-response procedures; and (c) provide additional funding for research into and the production of equipment and systems essential to the protection of critical-infrastructure buildings, systems, and networks.

Jeffrey said in his testimony – which focused primarily on the NIST National Construction Safety Team’s final report on the 9/11 collapses of the World Trade Center Towers – that the 30 major recommendations in the report are “realistic, appropriate, and achievable within a reasonable period of time.” Most of the recommendations, although worded specifically to remedy deficiencies in the protection of “tall buildings” (such as the WTC Towers), could with only minor modifications be made applicable to other components of the nation’s critical infrastructure.

At first glance, the NIST recommendations might seem to be little more than common-sense generalities – e.g., “Improve the structural integrity of buildings.” But the huge volume of comments from expert witnesses that accompany the report, the testimony of public and private-sector preparedness professionals, and other backup materials provide thousands of detailed specifics.

To improve and enhance the fire resistance of buildings, for example, requires the use of spray-applied “fire-resistive” coatings, the installation of additional sprinkler systems and standpipes/hoses, and the hard-wiring – within and throughout the building – of fire alarms and smoke-management systems. Protection of those within the building requires, in addition, the installation, maintenance, testing, and use of redundant voice and phone public-announcement systems to alert tenants and office workers of a known or suspected danger in time to permit their “safe and rapid egress” through the “additional evacuation routes” that also are recommended.

Encouraging the Volunteers

The key word throughout the report, it should be noted, is “recommended” – because NIST could only “urge” or – frequently – “strongly urge,” not direct, require, or mandate. For that reason, Jeffrey also cautioned that the numerous safety improvements projected could be realized only if the agency’s recommendations “are acted on by the appropriate organizations” – i.e., the organizations “that develop building and fire safety codes, standards, and practices.” He urged those organizations – “and the state and local agencies” that are required to adhere to the safety codes and standards – to give “immediate and serious consideration to implementing the report’s recommendations.”

History shows that the American system of government works best when common-sense recommendations and suggestions are voluntarily adopted – by private-sector businesses and nongovernmental organizations as well as by individual citizens. A few self-enforcing economic factors frequently help as well – e.g., when insurance companies refuse to write policies for homes built on cliffs.

Recognizing these time-honored truths – and looking for a way, perhaps, to “encourage” the private sector to do more on its own behalf – the 9/11 Commission asked the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) to develop a consensus on a voluntary “National Standard for Preparedness” for the private sector. ANSI did so, consulting not only government officials but also safety, security, and business-continuity experts from a broad spectrum of private-sector industries and associations. The end result was a strong endorsement by the 9/11 Commission, in its own Final Report, of the ANSI’s “recommended standard for private preparedness.”

Knowing that voluntary does not always work, the Commission members added a few “or else” considerations with the following muscular statement: “We also encourage the insurance and credit-rating industries to look closely at a company’s compliance with the ANSI standard in assessing its [the company’s] insurability and creditworthiness. We believe that compliance with the standard should define the standard of care owed by a company to its employees and the public for legal purposes. Private-sector preparedness is not a luxury; it is a cost of doing business in the post-9/11 world. It is ignored at a tremendous potential cost in lives, money, and national security.”

The NIST recommendations released by Dr. Jeffrey are included in 43 separate reports, totaling approximately 10,000 pages of comments, testimony, and backup materials of various types. To view the complete set of comments, the full version of the final recommendations, and the accompanying NIST press release, visit Also recommended are the ANSI website ( and the website of the American Society of Civil Engineers (

An in-depth interview by DomPrep’s John Morton with ASCE Chief Operating Officer Larry Roth was included in the 23 March issue of T.I.P.S., predecessor of the DomPrep Journal. That interview focused on the ASCE’s 2005 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, which provides updated grades for, among other infrastructure components, the nation’s roads, bridges, drinking water, transit systems, and energy resources.

James D. Hessman

James D. Hessman is former editor in chief of both the Navy League’s Sea Power Magazine and the League’s annual Almanac of Seapower. Prior to that dual assignment he was senior editor of Armed Forces Journal International.



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