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Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. narvikk/iStock

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5 Ways Agencies Can Strengthen Operational Resiliency to Head-Off Disruption

As agencies like the FAA evolve their networks, they must bolster support systems to ensure business continuity and to protect against disruption during emergencies.

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Despite best practices and planning, emergencies are always just around the corner. Prior to jumping on stage to speak at this year’s Air Traffic Control Association Annual Conference in Washington D.C., Andis Kalnins, a senior manager on Verizon’s Business Continuity and Emergency Management team, was on the phone with his team members hunkering down in Dallas for a stormfront moving through. With years of experience helping organizations manage and work through disasters, Kalnins stressed the importance of having a resilient network that can keep an agency operating through any emergency.

"We need to be prepared,” Kalnins said during the session, “Business Continuity for the FAA: Key Capabilities for Avoiding Disruption to the Mission,” speaking to the crowd of air traffic controllers and other aviation leaders, all of whom must prepare for the eventuality of major natural and man-made disasters and prime both systems and people to react appropriately. “That’s what the key for all of these events are. That’s the key to business continuity: Are we ready for what may happen? [Are we ready] for both those things that you may know about and those things that you don’t know about?”

In recent years, natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Dorian, California’s wildfires and the spate of tornadoes striking the midwest have tested the resiliency of emergency management teams across the country. The aviation community has had to reckon with not only these major weather events, but also smaller ones that might pop up on the radar every day and with little warning. Moreover, agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration need to be able to head off the disruption that emergencies can create, ensuring critical infrastructure and operations stay up and running and that the flying public stays safe, even in times of turmoil.

In these times, dispatchers rely on networks that prioritize the needs of emergency responders in order to communicate quickly and efficiently with the aim to get systems and operations back online as quickly as possible.

So how can agencies engender end-to-end network resilience and reliability in order to stay one step ahead of possible disruption?

Kalnins pointed to five key steps for strengthening networks, security, systems and chains of command in order to maintain business continuity and operations during emergency events.

1. Audit Your Security Posture and Network Architecture

The first step for strengthening business continuity is to evaluate your agency’s current network infrastructure, noting gaps and targeting investments that can make these infrastructures nimble and adaptable. This flexibility is key to keeping networks up and running during busy periods, and ensuring these networks don’t become overwhelmed or succumb to security vulnerabilities.

Whether it’s predicting, preparing or responding to events, decision-makers and on-the-ground staff require dependable network structures to handle whatever circumstances they may encounter. As government agencies look to make investments that engender more dependable networks, IT leaders should look to prioritize investments that can support first responders’ physical security, global event monitoring and situational awareness.

Moreover, government agencies should think through not just what’s necessary to support emergency management operations today, but what those needs might look like in the future — perhaps a more difficult task than even experienced professionals imagine.

“Our [pace layering] predictions are likely to change, and we should think about that when we build architecture and structures,” FAA Chief Data Officer Natest Manikoth said at the conference, referring to the process of structuring and layering systems to facilitate rapid change.

2. Prioritize Situational Awareness

In order to manage difficult and often hectic circumstances effectively, putting systems in place that improve communication, provide insight into resources and, ultimately, supply all involved with the comprehensive situational awareness necessary to make the right decisions is key.

So, what can agencies like the FAA do to provide robust situational awareness? This is where management centers come in, says Kalnins. These centers combine information from a wealth of resources, into a central repository for responders.

“We have global monitoring sources,” says Kalnins. “These sources include feeds from public safety,  government agencies and social media, because sometimes Facebook or Twitter are the first to record an issue.”

From this repository, decision makers and responders can streamline data quickly and efficiently, as opposed to casting around for information from multiple sources.

3. Establish an Effective End-to-End Service Management Structure

Successful change management systems enable users in different locations, doing different work activities, to identify conflicts or impacts to the network. In order to effectively organize and coordinate operational plans throughout disasters, agencies should look to put together, test and activate these change management structures, says Kalnins.

“The network is constantly growing and evolving,” Kalnins says. “We need to make sure those changes do not affect the folks, customers and their key business services.”

With a structure in place, teams will have access to more seamless coordination even as networks grow and accumulate more data.

If agencies notice a gap in communications, Kalnins stresses the ability to partner with commercial entities like Verizon in order to take the bulk of response and communications in times of emergency off of government leaders’ hands, leaving public sector leaders to focus on making decisions.

“We work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, state counties, and local groups, as well as corporate emergency operations based on the criticality of the work,” says Kalnins. “We train our folks to go in and be a liaison with onsite capabilities to pass information between all stakeholders involved in the public safety emergency operations center.”

4. Focus on Flexible, Mission-Critical Plans

Planning is an essential aspect of staying ahead of disruption.

“When something does occur, how are you going to respond? Who's going to coordinate that?” asks Kalnins.

Building response management plans and then testing them out will set standards and guidelines for critical moments. Using robust exercises to test the response, efficiency and effectiveness of the critical plans and how they support a network at its core can make all the difference in times of stress.

The FAA, for instance, routinely tests its management structure by undertaking training exercises that can ensure they have the proper decision-makers and information in place to provide continuity of operational networks no matter the situation.

Further, planning and testing should extend to systems and networks, as well. Networks that are properly resilient and flexible provide alternative routes in case of disruption.

5. It's All About the People

At the end of the day, the network infrastructure needs to support the people on the ground providing responders with the capabilities and resources that they need — wherever and whenever they need them, Kalnins says.

This support means comprehensive and updated training for response teams and those working directly with the management centers. Partnerships with providers like Verizon can help agencies to ensure business continuity, whether it’s through wireless, satellite or drone technologies, ultimately helping citizens and the flying public stay safe and get where they need to go.

“We need to push empowerment down the line as far as possible so that the people on the ground can make decisions as quickly as possible,” says Kalnins. “And to provide the infrastructure which enables them to get the information and resources they need.”

This content is made possible by our sponsor, Verizon; it is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Government Executive’s editorial staff.