Homeland Security officials have taken heed of the coordination challenges underscored by the past two years of disasters ranging from devastating hurricanes to all-consuming wildfires — in addition to man-made threats — that pose a pervasive risk to the nation’s critical infrastructure, according to a director within the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
The National Infrastructure Coordinating Center serves as a vital hub to connect owners and operators of critical infrastructure with the Department of Homeland Security, from the point of situational awareness and resilience prep to crisis response.
Matthew Wombacher, who has led NICC since July 2017, told HSToday about his “quick indoctrination into large-scale operations” when he assumed his role, as storms that year ravaged the Caribbean and Florida. Working with FEMA’s National Business Emergency Operations Center, NICC has “worked to integrate the private sector into the operation, into the decision-making process so they have a place at the table” with invaluable information sharing and daily calls.
“2017, we had on the order about 57 days when we had calls with about 40,000 people — what our math tells us — who participated in that,” Wombacher said on the sidelines of the Government Technology & Services Coalition’s recent Emergency Management 2019 event. “So clearly, there’s a demand. We wanted to create a place that was authoritative, a place where owners and operators could get information from the NOAA, Coast Guard, DOT… based on specific needs; it might have been DOE if there was a large-scale power restoration.”
After the hyperactive 2017 hurricane season, NICC reviewed processes and made “the most achievable, most appropriate” improvements for the 2018 hurricane season. “And so a lot of that worked into the community lifelines — we participated in that very heavily with FEMA, that’s a FEMA initiative — and then the development of Emergency Support Function 14, which is a business and infrastructure restoration ESF,” he said. “It will be newly operational June 1 for the 2019 hurricane season.”
Wombacher acknowledged the challenges in pulling together so many federal and local components along with industry and nongovernmental organizations, stressing that they reach for “where do we get the best sort of bang for the buck, if you will — we find that there are problems that occur that maybe private industry is better equipped to handle something more quickly.”
“We had to create a venue for them to voice these issues and we did that through the use of that daily call and other advancements, requests for information assistance, tracking and management, coordination with some of the cross-section council members more early in the storm season and with a more routine occurrence,” he continued, emphasizing the value of “having the perspective from the private sector always there as we’re considering response options” and then supporting primary agency FEMA. “There are always challenges, and I’m very fortunate to have a great workforce that’s responsive, innovative and understands what the mission is.”
On what the infrastructure sector may fear on the horizon, Wombacher said, “The bottom line is the threat landscape is ever-changing.”
“When I started in this line of work 20-plus years ago I was in a physical security-type role, and that was sort of my perspective. We see it’s not just terrorism — it’s other natural hazards, man-made events, cyber events that can perhaps bleed into a physical domain and vice-versa, intentional acts that can compromise the public safety system,” he said.
“One of the biggest things that I can do is create clear lines of communication so that somebody who wants to engage with DHS or the National Infrastructure Coordinating Center, they’re comfortable there’s one number that they can call and we can either get them the answer or direct them to the place that has the answer whether it’s for information, assistance or otherwise.”
NICC is also “very involved” with FEMA, state and local partners, and the private sector in local- to national-scope exercises and resilience training.
“It’s really inclusion… a voice at the table, this is what we’re doing, engaging in the operation [and] the planning side as well. And we’re seeing that just grow more and more and more,” Wombacher said. “And it’s rewarding to see these kinds of things we have thought about, talked about really be put into the action steps and be put into place.”
Infrastructure risks and threats vary across the country, and the voice of the private sector is critical in assessing and responding to those challenges. “Somebody says, well, what’s the electric system like? And I say where are you talking about, are you talking about someplace in Montana or Washington, D.C. – they’re different,” he noted. “Companies, owners and operators, they know what the threats and hazards are, they know what has to the potential to impact the assets they have whether it’s Northern California with fire or Florida where there’s risk for flooding and hurricanes.”
“And so we work very closely with them in terms of information sharing, sort of the two-way flow that takes place, hearing their concerns, things that we can do to offer help and advice through our Protective Security Advisor Program, which I used to run,” he said of CISA’s ground-level teams. “We have people in every state that are liaisons to owners and operators, local providers of infrastructure, tribal/territorial communities, dealing exclusively with the protection of infrastructure and making facilities, communities more resilient against whatever the event might be.”
When those events do strike, NICC is “open for business 24/7.”
“We take very seriously our solemn duty to protect and help keep our nation’s infrastructure secure and resilient, to make sure the American way of life operates every single day,” Wombacher said. “The people who work for me are some of the finest public servants that anyone could ever hope to have work for them.”