Feb. 16, 2001
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Center helps assess threats to critical infrastructures

Yacov Haimes
Courtesy of School of Engineering and Applied Science
Yacov Haimes

By Charlotte Crystal

What if an earthquake destroyed Wall Street? What if a disgruntled former employee poisoned the public drinking water supply in Los Angeles? What if a coordinated terrorist attack simultaneously shut down the power grid in the five largest cities in the United States?

Yacov Haimes worries about such "what ifs." Haimes, the Quarles Professor of Systems Engineering and Civil Engineering, is the founding director of the Center for Risk Management of Engineering Systems at U.Va. Through his research and the work of the center, Haimes, with the help of students and colleagues, is developing a system that will enable federal, state and local government agencies to identify and assess a broad array of potential threats to critical infrastructures. The center's work will allow government planners to weigh the current and future costs, and the risks and benefits of various courses of action as they draft and update disaster response plans.

Along these lines, the U.S. Department of Defense has commissioned Haimes and his team to conduct a nationwide study of the best practices used by the private sector in protecting critical infrastructures. Their draft report was submitted in December.

"Through its infrastructure modeling, the Center for Risk Management of Engineering Systems is creating a simple, logical road map to guide analysts through the complicated process of risk assessment," Haimes said. The nation's critical infrastructures include a number of different sectors, such as telecommunications, transportation, electric power, gas and oil, water treatment plants, water distribution networks, financial services, health services, and military command, control and communications systems.

The nation's electric power system is a good example. A strongly interconnected grid of power plants, transmission networks and large-scale distribution systems, the power system transforms fuel into energy and sends it over lines to be distributed to residential, commercial and industrial customers.

Many of these infrastructures are interdependent and an analysis of the risks facing each one involves many variables. The potential threats are diverse and include natural disasters, such as floods and earthquakes; software hacking by disgruntled employees or foreign agents; and chemical, biological or nuclear attacks by terrorists.

"The threats to our national critical infrastructures are real, but they are not of equal likelihood, or of equal impact," Haimes said. "Risks that are unlikely to occur, but would have dire consequences if they did, still must be considered both by public and private sector planners. Government agencies and the professional community need to move the issue higher on their agendas."

The rise in terrorism against American targets over the past decade, both overseas and at home, spurred then-President Clinton in July 1996 to establish the Presidential Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection, which called for the development of a coordinated national response to threats against critical infrastructures, based on an analysis of their vulnerability.

Several months later, a U.Va. team headed by Haimes presented to the commission a comparative analysis of the Charlottesville and New York City water supply systems -- as a benchmark for the U.S. water system -- which demonstrated that without the institution of basic organizational and technology-based safeguards, the nation's water supply can be extremely vulnerable to natural hazards as well as terrorist attacks.

"Understanding the relationships among natural, willful and accidental hazards is an important step in improving the protection of critical infrastructures," Haimes said. "We do that by looking at the data that's been gathered over the years on the effects of natural hazards, such as floods and hurricanes. Looking ahead, we need to keep in mind the dynamic nature of these systems and remember that current decisions have an impact on future options and on their consequences."

For the past two years, a team of three Engineering School faculty members has surveyed large U.S. corporations that have put into place systems to protect essential operations. Haimes was joined by research assistant professor Jim Lambert, associate director of the risk management center; and Stan Kaplan, visiting professor of systems engineering, as well as several students. The U.Va. team expects to continue its work for the Defense Department, Haimes said. It also is collaborating with a consulting company, Science Applications International Corp., to develop risk-based tools and methodologies to protect critical infrastructures in the civilian and defense sectors for the federal Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

Nationally, Haimes also is a member of a working group on infrastructure interdependencies formed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The group is involved in assessing risks to the nation's critical interdependent infrastructures, in research and development, and in educational outreach to officials in industry and in state and federal government.


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