It's time we ask: What do we do when the lights go out?

It's time we ask: What do we do when the lights go out?
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One day it could happen and how will you respond? If you are at home, will you be ready? If you are away from home, how will you get back? What will you do when the lights go out?

Crandall, Parnell and Spillan look at a crisis as some sort of an unexpected event that could have a tremendous impact on an organization and lead to negative results. A crisis can occur to an individual, a group, an organization, a whole city or even an entire nation.

Our nation is not prepared for the crisis of a catastrophic loss of our electrical grid.

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In his seminal work that evaluates how prepared our nation is to respond to a loss of the power grid due to a cyberattack, Ted Koppel found that none of our major governmental agencies are ready to respond to the event.

 

If the power grid went down in a major city for weeks, there are very few plans prepared to deal with the needs of the people, including medical requirements, food, sanitation, housing, etc.

If you consider that the nation’s electric grid is now run by over 3,200 companies, each with their own cybersecurity plans, none of which are controlled by the government, the results could be devastating. One company’s risk management decisions around cybersecurity could affect millions of Americans.

Politically, protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure is important, but not constantly addressed. Both President Obama, in 2013, and President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight South Korea leader: North Korea agrees to take steps toward denuclearization Graham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' MORE, in 2017, issued presidential executive orders charging leaders of governmental agencies to work with commercial companies to secure the nation’s critical infrastructure.

In 2017 alone, over 240 resolutions and bills tied to cybersecurity were introduced to legislatures across the country. To date, it is unknown if the steps necessary to secure even our electrical grid are sufficient.

In his book, Koppel found that one piece of electrical equipment, the larger power transmitter, can be a key cog in our grid. This piece of equipment is made individually for each station with specifications strictly for that location.

It costs millions of dollars and requires specialized train cars and vehicles to carry it. Over 75 percent of these pieces of equipment are made outside the United States, and it takes one to two years to make one.

There could be at least 10,000 of these power transmitters across the nation and only the largest power companies have the possibility of having a spare on hand. Couple this with basic human needs, and we have a severe crisis perhaps only one keystroke away.

As our government continues to discern how best to handle multiple sectors of critical infrastructure, most Americans are unaware of the problem.

Koppel interviewed the heads of many organizations in his book, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), even leaders in the Mormon Church, to find anyone with a comprehensive plan in the event of the loss of the national power grid. His efforts were unsuccessful.

Our elected officials and governmental department leaders are attempting to work with companies both domestically and internationally to prevent threats to our national power grid. A solution to shore up vulnerabilities in cyberspace that have grown out of attempts to make the power grid more efficient will not occur today or tomorrow.

That means that we all need to sit down and think, what are we going to do when the lights go out?

Lt. Col. James Coughlin is an Air Force officer currently serving as a national security affairs fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is a cyberspace operations officer and holds a MA in Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict and a Masters of Military Arts and Sciences in Strategic Studies. The opinions of James Coughlin are his own and do not represent the options of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, the United States Air Force or the Department of Defense.