As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, we find ourselves impacted in ways we have not previously considered.  Dealing with new challenges has pushed everyone out of their comfort zones and forced us to reconsider what is actually essential.  Many of the assurances we previously took for granted are now under siege.  Even our basic human interactions have been directly impacted. Paradigms are shifting all over.

In December of 2016, I wrote an article titled “Celebrate the Unsung Heroes in Critical Facilities.” The article was a tribute to those who report to and remain at work so the rest of us can feel safe and confident that essential services we rely upon will continue unabated. Back then, I realized that during adverse conditions, they were expected to make sacrifices and even face increased risks, so the rest of the community had access to the staples we all need.  Today, I see the same essential staff providing the same essential services but, now, with potentially life-threatening ramifications. As the “nonessential” populace self-isolates during these lockdowns, many of these essential services and products become scarce, making their acquisition critical.

Typical essential services continue, such as law enforcement, fire fighters, hospitals, etc.  But paradigms are starting to shift.  Nonessential surgeries and other health care services have been interrupted.  The criticality of our grocery stores and the associated food production, processing, and delivery chains are threatened.  Meat processing plants have been ordered to remain open despite becoming “virus hotspots.” Meat plant workers are now “essential.”  So are factories and workers that make medical masks, hand sanitizers, and other personal protective equipment (PPE) as well as the truckers, distribution centers, and home delivery services that get critical products to their destinations.  

One constant is the criticality of typical critical facilities, i.e., data centers, command centers, and operations centers.  Most, if not all modern businesses, factories, distribution centers, and even grocery stores are dependent upon IT and data processing to manage their operations.  The same goes for law enforcement, utilities, hospitals, government agencies, and pretty much all other communitywide services.  As companies try to adapt and overcome these new challenges, they are relying more and more on remote working capabilities. 

Many of these capabilities existed before the pandemic, but general paradigms kept these technologies on the fringe.  Now these technologies are being embraced as critical to the survival of many operations. Most people would be reluctant about buying a car online without visiting the showroom.  Now, that’s pretty much the only way to do it.  And, I would never have considered it possible to perform a site assessment remotely, but with online, collaborative, inspection-focused software, and a team of remote experts who have access to a smart device with a microphone, speakers, and camera, they can be accomplished under the right conditions and with the right on-site support. Regardless, necessities are driving innovations that rely on data centers and communications infrastructure.

Due to the digital interconnectivity of all these processes, the internet has become more critical than ever before.  Almost the entire entertainment industry has moved from in-person venues (theaters, stadiums, concert halls, museums, festivals, etc.) to video streaming and TV broadcasts.  With the dependence of most of our economy and services on IT, data processing, and digital communications, the internet and network connectivity in general may now be the most critical service of all.  Imagine what would happen if connectivity was to fail comprehensively.

So, what do we do to prevent future catastrophes from occurring?  This simple question has anything but a simple answer.  You immediately need to apply the question to specific circumstances and situations.  You must define what is essential, analyze the risks and hazards, plan how to respond, develop contingencies, etc., and then invest in ways to protect “the mission.” Regardless, the ultimate answer is to develop a culture of prevention.  

Recently, I was fortunate enough to visit the Vellore Institute of Technology in Vellore, India.  This impressive university is considered a leading private institution for innovation in India and has over 35,000 students.  On my tour of the campus, I passed many plaques of quotes by famous leaders in all fields of human endeavor.  There was one that caught my attention and has stayed with me, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic. It is a quote by Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary General from 1999, which states, ”Building a culture of prevention is not easy. While the cost of prevention had to be paid in the present, its benefits lie in the distant future.  Moreover, the benefits are not tangible; they are disasters that did not happen.”

This applies directly to critical facilities and how they are best managed.  The best run facilities invest in processes, checks-and-balances, continuous quality assurance, and quality control processes whose fundamental purpose are to prevent future disasters.  They invest in redundant, physically separated infrastructure to prevent a single failure from impacting operations.  They invest in the highest quality equipment controlled by redundant, fail-safe building management systems. And they supplement comprehensive monitoring systems with roving staff inspections and basically deploy multiple layers of protections against anticipated and unanticipated faults.

Critical facilities invest in their most critical assets: their staff.  They provide not only training and a good working environment, but they foster a culture of excellence where good is not good enough and staff are expected to strive for excellence in everything they do.  They also provide the support, resources, and recognition that what they do matters — that their site, mission, and people are critical.  And, interwoven throughout the critical facility industry is the underlying concept that success is measured by the disasters and outages that did not occur.  The strategy is based on the understanding that the costs of failure far outweigh the costs of risk avoidance. Like the aviation industry, they realize any crash is one too many.  They cultivate a culture of prevention.

During these trying times, when we all are reconsidering what is and is not critical, we should also consider what needs to be done to prevent future disasters. More importantly, we need to make the necessary investments today to prevent (or at least mitigate) tomorrow’s disasters.  The pandemic has forced everyone out of their comfort zones to some extent, and many to a large extent. We need to reflect during this pandemic on what we perceive to be truly essential.   This is the best opportunity for all to embrace paradigm shifts and be open to innovative solutions to critical issues.

When the pandemic has passed and we all return to our comfort zones, I hope we do not forget these times and ignore the lessons learned.  We cannot continue to “kick the can down the road” as we see potential catastrophes looming on the horizon.  We should look at our homes, our work, our communities, our nation, and our world from a new perspective.  As the world gets more and more connected, we become more and more interdependent.  We need to see value in what is essential and in those who deliver essential services and products and work to protect against future catastrophes.  We need to foster a culture of prevention by investing today to prevent future disasters.