AS AN EXAMPLE OF RESILIENCY, it’s tough to beat the tardigrade. The eight-legged, millimeter-long aquatic invertebrate can survive being frozen at minus 328 degrees Fahrenheit and heated to more than 300 degrees Fahrenheit. It can survive in oxygen-depleted water by stretching its body to maximize oxygen absorption. It can repair its own DNA to survive radiation levels 1,000 times higher than what other animals can withstand. It can dial down its metabolic activity, curl into a near-lifeless ball, and live in suspended animation for a decade or more. Dehydrated tardigrades exposed for 10 days to the harsh vacuum and deadly solar radiation of outer space have returned to life within 30 minutes of being plopped back into water. The tardigrade’s resiliency—its ability to respond, withstand, adapt, and quickly recover—allows it to survive events that would kill other creatures. There is no animal on earth more resilient, save perhaps humans.
As in the animal kingdom, human resilience is often a matter of life and death. Throughout history, societies lacking resilience suffered terrible ends; people died, while cities and civilizations collapsed and faded away. According to Stephen Flynn, the founding director of the Center for Resilience Studies at Northeastern University, modernity has done nothing to change this fact of life.
“It will be the most resilient communities, companies, and countries that will prosper in the 21st century—those that are not resilient, that are fragile and brittle, will end up isolated and will fail in the current global environment,” said Flynn. “There is no risk-free place on the planet. People will live, invest, and gravitate to places that are more resilient and flee those that are not. It is crucial as a country to get this right.”
Viewed through a hazards and security lens, resilience can be defined as the ability to withstand a disruption, blunt the impact, recover quickly, and adapt to emerge stronger and better prepared than before. It is achieved on both a small scale, as in a local business or a hospital, and on a large scale, such as building resiliency into an urban transit system, a regional power grid, a city, or even a nation. Resiliency can mean erecting better levees in New Orleans, installing power redundancies in hospitals or airports, or even building stronger community bonds in neighborhoods. Since 2010, the federal government has focused on resiliency as a key concept to national security and combating the effects of climate change.
Several reports have identified the importance of codes and standards for bolstering resiliency efforts. “Organizations such as NFPA have a critical role to play in building resilience into communities and systems,” Flynn said. “While researchers can identify the ‘what’ and ‘how’ to make our societies more resilient, practical innovations that draw on the latest knowledge, tools, and technologies are unlikely to see early and wide adoption unless they are quickly embedded into codes and standards.”
Over the last year, NFPA has considered the role it could play in helping to bolster the nation’s resiliency against natural and man-made disasters. The basic concepts of resiliency are nothing new to NFPA, but it does require a slight shift in thinking, said Don Bliss, NFPA’s vice president of field operations.
“For years, NFPA has been working on risk management and protection without realizing it was actually writing resiliency standards,” Bliss said. “We feel like we can make a greater contribution to the area of resilience by expanding the scope of our codes just a bit, and by adding more resilience-specific language and concepts to those codes.”
The same planning process is happening in myriad efforts across the nation. No entity has been a stronger booster of the resiliency concept than the Obama administration, which has made creating more resilience in communities and critical infrastructure a national priority. Since the U.S. government first made mention of resilience in the 2010 edition of “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America” document, the concept has been the subject of presidential directives, high-level reports, commissions, committees, and billions of dollars in grant funding. It’s a significant shift.
“In the past, we had a lot of eggs in the prevention basket, and not as much thinking was going on about how to recover and adapt to disaster,” said Flynn, who spent a decade as a senior fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and was the lead homeland security policy advisor for President Obama’s Presidential Transition Team in 2008. “Hurricane Sandy was a major impetus behind changing that. The thinking was, if you can’t prevent a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or terrorist attack, you have to figure out what you can do to mitigate its impact. How can you recover, respond, and adapt?”
The reality is that resiliency can be difficult to execute in the real world. Today, all economic sectors are intertwined and codependent, and critical systems run across political borders and jurisdictions. About 85 percent of the nation’s critical infrastructure is owned by the private sector, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. In addition, there is too much regional diversity and too many disparate risk factors for a generic national resiliency plan to work, Flynn said.
“The emphasis has got to be on bottom-up,” he said. “And when you’re talking about building a bottom-up capacity, a significant responsibility is on private-sector owners and operators to maintain continuity in the face of risk.”
The severe fuel shortages in New York City after Hurricane Sandy illustrate the complexities involved in making critical infrastructure more resilient. The vast majority of the 42 million gallons of refined fuel New York City uses per day comes by boat or pipeline into the New Jersey side of New York Harbor, where it is refined. The refineries in New Jersey were swamped by the storm and stopped functioning, Flynn said. The pipeline compressor stations, which are necessary to move fuel down the line, rely on electricity, and when the power went out the entire pipeline system collapsed. “No one in Washington D.C., or New York understood what happened or what was needed to deal with the problem,” Flynn said. “That’s because it’s a private system that basically operates under the radar. It shows that even very well-run cities like New York can only be self-sufficient to a certain level. Everyone everywhere relies on systems that are outside of their control.”
One of the main efforts underway for working small to big is the Community Disaster Resilience project, being conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The aim of the project, created as part of the President’s Climate Action Plan, is to engage communities to create their own comprehensive resiliency plan.
“We are developing a methodology for communities to include resilience as part of their long-term development planning process,” said Nancy McNabb, the manager of codes and standards for NIST’s Community Resilience Group. The resiliency planning would consider economic and social factors, as well as the built environment, water, energy, communications, and transportation. Local governments and regulators, along with private organizations ranging from nonprofits, relief organizations, businesses, utilities, and churches, would be encouraged to work together on the plan.
“Resiliency planning is different than traditional emergency-management planning because it takes into consideration the cascading effects that can happen during a disaster,” McNabb said. “In resiliency we also focus much more on the short, intermediate, and long-term community plans for the disaster-recovery portion—developing long-term solutions, so that over a period of time you are bolstering building stock by retrofitting, or building new buildings and infrastructure with up-to-date standards. It’s not just planning for the initial shock of the emergency.”
The initiative began last year when NIST held a series of workshops around the country for public and private stakeholders, including NFPA. The end result will be what NIST calls a “disaster resilience framework” designed to help communities develop resilience plans and establish goals centered on recovering function in the built environment to support social needs. When the framework is finished this spring, NIST will convene a panel of resilience experts to create “model resilience guidelines”—essentially a guide to help communities establish a comprehensive resiliency plan.
To bolster the effort, NIST is establishing a Community Resilience Center of Excellence at Colorado State University. At the new center, researchers from NIST, academia, and the private sector will develop computer tools to help local governments decide how each can best invest resources intended to lessen the impact of extreme weather and other hazards and recover rapidly in the aftermath. “Those kinds of tools don’t currently exist for resilience in terms of looking at the built environment,” McNabb said. “With systems-level models at the community scale, we can learn how to better use resources, and where communities might get the most bang for their buck.”
The NFPA angle
According to Bliss, a number of NFPA codes and standards, especially those dealing with hazardous processes or life safety, could potentially be bolstered to include more resilience language and principles. Potential areas of focus could include NFPA 5000®, Building Construction and Safety Code®; NFPA 99, Health Care Facilities Code; NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®; and industrial codes such as NFPA 58, Liquefied Petroleum Gas Code. Such expansion would fit with NFPA’s strategic goal of promoting the use of NFPA standards as risk management tools, Bliss said.
As a first step, the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF) released a report in December titled “Disaster Resiliency and NFPA Codes and Standards,” which “basically took an inventory to find out what we have, what we could have, and where we could go,” said Derek Deskins, a research project manager who worked on the project. Deskins said the report found that there were many opportunities for potential growth in resiliency areas, and that NFPA already has many codes and standards that touch upon the principles of resilience, without explicitly using the term.
For instance, the 2008 edition of the National Electrical Code® added Article 708, which requires a risk assessment to be performed on critical operations power systems. NFPA 110, Emergency and Standby Power Systems, and NFPA 1600®, Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs, are essentially resiliency documents, according to the FPRF report.
For the next phase of the FPRF project, the foundation will develop a guidance document for NFPA technical committees on how to embed more resilience language and requirements into its codes and standards. The foundation will also craft case studies using existing codes to show how resilience concepts such as redundancies, robustness, and rapid recovery could fit in.
Educating and creating awareness among stakeholders, including first responders, facilities managers, business leaders, and others, will also be a big part of the ongoing resiliency effort, said Bliss, and efforts are underway at NFPA to do just that. Potential projects include creating materials for facility managers and other risk specialists on how to use NFPA codes and standards as risk management tools. There is also a proposal to create a new handbook for NFPA 1600 to better assist businesses, communities, and organizations in creating an emergency and disaster management plan. Other teams and divisions inside NFPA are looking at ways to incorporate resiliency into more of the association’s work.
“In standards development, research, and public education, we still need to carve out the areas where we should expand our resiliency efforts and where we are headed,” Bliss said. “Even with our existing resources, though, NFPA is playing an important role in shaping what resiliency looks like for a lot of different stakeholders. This is an important concept that is still evolving, and NFPA will be a key factor in driving that change.”