At a briefing held under the Chatham House rule (of attribution) on 5 December, members of Resilience First and guests of the Resilience Shift heard from a panel of expert speakers on the lessons learnt from a global resilience exercise based on a wide-scale power outage – a so-called ‘black sky’ event. The event was hosted by FTI Consulting.
EARTH EX III, the third in an annual series of exercises that ran from August to October 2019, involved over 11,000 people, around 2,000 organisations and government agencies, 38 sectors and 42 nations. It was the ‘largest resilience exercise in history’ to date and was run by the Electric Infrastructure Security Council and supported by the Resilience Shift.
The results of the exercise (a summary report by the Resilience Shift can be found here) were reinforced by a verbal report on the experiences of a large power outage in the UK on 9 August 2019. This was caused by the near simultaneous failure of two major power generators on the National Grid. As a result, there was an abnormal reduction in the system frequency which lasted only 5mins, with full power restoration occurring 45mins after the initial outage. However, the consequences of power loss to particular sectors e.g. rail were immense and lasted days. This is the subject of further investigation. (See separate report here.) A key question posed from the incident is: what might be the right balance between the need for resilience in the National Grid and the cost of ensuring enhanced resilience?
The interconnectedness and interdependencies of modern complex systems provided the central theme of the briefing, and the one identified in EARTH EX. The impact of a major loss of electricity supply would rapidly expand into water, communications, food supply, finance and beyond. It is simply not credible to assume that because any one organisation was well prepared that it could continue to function when all services around were rendered inoperable.
The six resilience-focused lessons learnt in EARTH EX were:
- Planning and plan integration.
- Cross-sector co-ordination with tools and techniques.
- Communications capabilities.
- Workforce preparation.
- Resource management.
A key element of the exercise was that it is cross-sector, and through this, aims to promote whole system thinking. Participants were able to build their knowledge of how to prepare for power disruptions, and consequently increase community resilience. The exercise also produced lessons on how to enhance the utility of such activities for guiding resilience planning in the future.
The briefing and subsequent discussion highlighted the following messages:
- The cause of catastrophic events is secondary to the response, and many responses can be generic or ‘hazard agnostic’. Preparing for a terrorist attack, for instance, can help people also deal with preventing shoplifting as many of the warning signs to watch out for are similar.
- The impacts may be sudden but the societal consequences can be long lasting and very disruptive. According to a report by MI5 in 2004, ‘we are four meals away from anarchy’.
- It is important to identify critical points in advance, and failure of some points may have unexpected consequences in ‘unusual’ areas which are not normally included or exercised. Other traditional sectors are simply not geared for extreme ‘civilisation-scale’ events.
- The standard risk-assessment methodology (e.g.1:100-year event) is no longer credible when similar events are occurring every few years and there is a ‘cascade of failure’. The nature of vulnerabilities has changed.
- There is a need to map how value is delivered. This should focus on adaptive capacity.
- Reliance on governments and public bodies to solve the crisis is unrealistic and the private sector should take a greater lead through ‘visionary leaders’. At the other end of the scale, workers should be empowered to take actions in a crisis to recover situations wherever possible and safe.
- All should be prepared for catastrophic events.
The panel included Xavier Aldea-Borruel and Caroline Field from the Resilience Shift, and Lord Toby Harris and Avi Schnurr from the Electric Infrastructure Security Council.