A Spotlight on National Infrastructure Security Month Shows How NCEM Works to Keep Infrastructure Safe, Secure and Operational

Richard McCall, Director of Environmental and Transmission Compliance at the North Carolina Electric Membership Corporation
Tuesday, November 19, 2019 - 12:26pm

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is highlighting topics such as election security, insider threats, cyber-physical convergence and protection of our hometowns as part of November’s Infrastructure Security Month.  

Last week, N.C. Emergency Management (NCEM) focused on this subject area as part of GridEx, an exercise to practice response to and recover from simulated coordinated cyber and physical security threats/incidents. Close to 30 federal and state agencies, law enforcement, utilities and the N.C. National Guard, along with nonprofit associations and private industry, convened at the State Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh for this exercise. The group worked through a scenario involving a cyber-intrusion compromising the ability of utility operators to monitor and control the power grid. The exercise also included physical attacks that caused power outages at specific power facilities, a partial closure of I-85 caused by a fire originating in a segment of pipeline used for gas-fired power plants, a sophisticated malware attack that causes a pressure drop in a gas mainline, as well as an explosion near a large power plant. The group wrestled with options and solutions for more than four hours, considering the real-life role each would play and how they would communicate and join for a coordinated response.  

The exercise last week is just one of many that NCEM conducts to practice and enhance its capabilities to respond to all hazards, natural or man-made, across the state. NCEM helps protect North Carolina’s infrastructure and residents in a host of different ways, also including its work with the state’s fusion center, also known as N.C. Information Sharing and Analysis Center (ISAAC). The fusion center develops actionable intelligence on immediate and emerging threats in the fight against terrorism and criminal activity and shares it with first responders, private sector, emergency management, critical infrastructure and federal, state, local and tribal partners.

Other areas in which NCEM works to protect the state’s infrastructure and residents include:

  • Communities – using Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR), the N.C. Office of Recovery and Resiliency (NCORR) helps storm-impacted communities rebuild smarter and stronger by assisting families to move out of flood zones, and to elevate or rebuild homes to make them more resilient. Funding for the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) is awarded to the state through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
  • Cyber Security – As the lead agency for the State Emergency Response Team (SERT), NCEM works with national, state and local emergency management agencies to address cyber and infrastructure issues, helping to keep the state’s critical infrastructure secure and resilient. The SERT, along with the North Carolina National Guard (NCNG) Cyber Security Response Force (CSRF) and the N.C. Department of Information Technology (NCDIT), work to safeguard the state from cyber threats. This includes hosting trainings that help to prepare personnel in a host of emergency response functions to deal with a variety of cyber threats.
  • Election Security – Working with the N.C. State Board of Elections and many state and federal partners, NCEM helps to ensure safe and secure elections in the state through Election Day support, training exercises, security assessments and cybersecurity. Homeland Security is part of this process and helps to lead the effort with state and local officials to increase the resilience of the election infrastructure.
  • Emergency communications – As the lead agency for the State Emergency Response Commission (SERC), NCEM works to improve interoperability between first responders and supporting agencies through trainings and planning. The SERC provides leadership for all operable and interoperable communications and the implementation of the Statewide Communications Interoperability Plan (SCIP). To keep the public informed, NCEM also provides emergency alerts during crisis situations. In North Carolina, emergency messages are created by select agencies, including NCEM, the National Weather Service (NWS) and local governments. These Emergency Alert System (EAS) messages may be broadcast on television, radio, weather radios and through some cell phone services as Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). The state is also part of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), which allows national, state, local, tribal and territorial alerting authorities to alert and warn the public about serious emergencies using EAS, WEA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio, and other public alerting systems from a single interface.
  • Homeland Security – NCEM coordinates the implementation of the State Homeland Security Program to secure federal funding and improve the state’s capabilities to prevent, protect, respond and recover from all hazards, including terrorist attacks. To help in this endeavor, NCEM administers the Homeland Security Grant Program (HSGP), which is funded by the DHS to help build and sustain national preparedness capabilities. The grants program is coordinated by the NCEM Homeland Security Branch on behalf of the State Administrative Agent (SAA), Department of Public Safety Secretary Eric A. Hooks.
  • Infrastructure – NCEM’s Infrastructure Branch helps to coordinate critical infrastructure preparedness and recovery, while also planning for and mitigating future threats. As part of the Disaster Recovery Act of 2016, NCEM helped to create resilient redevelopment plans in the 50 federally declared counties impacted by Hurricane Matthew. The plans identify ways to rebuild communities to be more resilient to future extreme weather events. NCEM has also partnered with the North Carolina Department of Transportation in a study of the Lumber, Neuse and Tar River basins to determine the primary sources of flooding and identify possible mitigation strategies to prevent future flood damage.
  • School Safety – The state’s School Risk Management Plan, administered by NCEM, documents pertinent data and processes used by schools in the prevention, response and recovery from hazards and threats. The plan allows school staff, first responders, law enforcement and emergency managers to coordinate information and activities through a web-based planning tool that creates a profile of the school’s vulnerabilities and procedures for responding to natural hazards and threats. To assist in the response to those hazards, NCEM administers the School Emergency Response Application (SERA), which allows first responders, law enforcement and emergency managers to access the data in a school’s plan and respond effectively when needed.
Brian R. Haines