Designing Resilient Systems For When Your Community Needs You Most

Resiliency can be defined as a system’s ability to withstand and rebound from vulnerabilities like natural disasters, accidents, infrastructure problems, and chronic stressors (e.g. climate change, unemployment, state budget issues, housing unaffordability). Organizations tend to perform optimally near the limit of crisis because it makes the most out of the resources available. Implementing resilient principles allows managers to comfortably operate near that limit while greatly reducing the risk to life safety, facilities, and service delivery.

What characterizes a resilient system?

Resilient systems have some key characteristics that differentiate them. While other systems are designed to maintain a single closely-regulated state of equilibrium, a resilient system has many alternative stable states and can function under a wide range of operating conditions. As such, resilient systems are networked, diverse, redundant, distributed, durable, and adaptable.

Resilient systems resemble a networked, web-like structure as opposed to a branching, treelike structure. This makes it easier to overcome a failure within the system because the failure only affects one node of the system as opposed to an entire branch. Consider a car accident on a major route, where a grid of streets would allow cars to maneuver around the accident but a suburban street pattern would cause long delays.

Resilient systems are also diverse, using multiple strategies simultaneously to help communities be prepared for a range of vulnerabilities. The best way to protect firefighters from the hazards of diesel exhaust is to install tailpipe capture devices as well as general garage exhaust fans, each of which is superior under certain conditions but neither of which is ideal for all conditions. This can also be seen in stormwater management systems, which are designed to accommodate a variety of different rainstorms. For lighter rains, they store some water and slow the discharge rate of the rest. In times of extreme rain, they will ultimately overflow in a particular direction to prevent general flooding.

What are the benefits of a resilient system?

Resilient systems demonstrate redundancy and geographic distribution, thus allowing communities to have access to the resources they need even if a local incident takes one component out of readiness. For example, with a network of fire stations the department can respond from a nearby station to multiple events simultaneously, or can dispatch multiple engines to a single severe fire. A police department with several squad cars on the street can effectively respond to a bank robbery even if one officer is stuck in traffic.

Resilient systems are durable. Many dispatch facilities are designed to withstand the impact from wind-borne debris, such as might occur during a tornado. This lets the facility continue operations, whereas an ordinary building would have been too damaged.

Resilient systems are adaptable, and allow for continued operations under a variety of different conditions. In this way, a classroom in a school or a dayroom in a fire station can function as a backup emergency operations center in times of emergency.

How can I make my community more resilient?

FEMA annually funds pre- and post-disaster Hazard Mitigation and Flood Mitigation Assistance Grants, which can be used for initial planning or project implementation. The pre-disaster grant programs are open now through Nov. 14 and will distribute $90 million for hazards and $160 million for floods to states, tribal governments, and local communities. There are cost-sharing requirements and work must be complete within a certain timeframe.

Resilience can be implemented by existing staff in addition to other duties. For example, many cities are hiring Chief Resilience Officers or similar positions to gather and analyze data across departments and share strategies with peers in other cities. Says Anthony Corso, Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Peoria, “As more cities embrace data-driven, human-centered policies and practices, the line between innovation, sustainability and resiliency efforts blurs and ideas converge into strategies that inherently include economic, social and environmental facets. This networked or systems thinking approach requires greater effort through intensive collaboration and adaptive leadership, but yields a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts.”


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