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Disaster researcher Wolf Dombrowsky on critical infrastructure

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Disaster researcher Wolf Dombrowsky on critical infrastructure


Berlin. Preparations are underway: In Austria, 50 Wien Energie employees have already moved to their workplace in precautionary quarantine so that they can continue to operate power plants and waste incineration plants despite the high number of infected people in the outside world. In Germany, too, companies, hospitals and rescue services are activating their emergency plans to prevent a failure. The omicron wave could cause companies and facilities of the so-called critical infrastructure to no longer function normally due to too many employees in isolation and quarantine – so it is feared. How big is the danger really? How resilient are the essential facilities? Questions to the disaster researcher Professor Wolf Dombrowsky. Mr. Dombrowsky, the warnings of a failure of the critical infrastructure are omnipresent in Germany – as are the statements that one is “well positioned”. What is the real status of protecting critical infrastructure in Germany? Are the worries justified? To be honest, no one really knows. Fortunately, we have never had a failure of critical infrastructure before. And the fact that we don’t know is also related to an inflationary use of the term. What is really “critical infrastructure”? Critical infrastructure is a basic supply unit that is essential for life and whose failure would jeopardize the supply of the entire population. In the 1990s there was a nationwide exercise for crisis management with the scenario of a power failure. After that, there was a lot of alarm. Afterwards, most companies, especially the energy suppliers, have extensively retrofitted, because one noticed: If the electricity fails in the Federal Republic, everything comes to a standstill.

“The most unimaginative thing to say about critical infrastructure”

Today, on the other hand, almost everything seems to be part of the critical infrastructure, with the exception of culture and gastronomy. In fact, today it is hardly known which infrastructure is vital infrastructure for which infrastructure. If you take a coupled system, like gas supply, then you can’t tell anymore whether the ships that transport the crude oil are critical infrastructure, the satellite system that is navigating, the exchange system that controls gas market prices, or the trucks that are bring the petrol to the gas stations. Or Aldi, for example: The cash register determines the stock, reports to the supplier what is needed, and that is thrown out on the street. You no longer know: the street, the cash register – what actually is infrastructure for what? What does it mean when individual companies or institutions assure that they are “well positioned”? Little. The statement that you pay attention to the staff and, for example, firefighters and paramedics do not sleep in the same room is the most unimaginative thing you can say about critical infrastructure. That’s why I’m more concerned than reassured when companies say they’re in good shape. The disaster researcher Wolf Dombrowsky is a professor at the Steinbis University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. Previously headed the disaster research center at the University of Kiel and was deputy chairman of the protection commission at the Federal Ministry of the Interior. © Source: Wolf Dombrowsky What is your definition then? The only question that needs to be asked is: What can be substituted, i.e. replaced? I can substitute candles for my electric light in private households – but then it quickly stops with electricity. One would have to define: When is the security of supply for the entire population threatened? And luckily I don’t see that at the moment. What about the health system due to possible quarantine and illness? The problem is real, as you can see from the staff shortages in other countries in the hospitals. They were already at the limit before the pandemic, because capacities had been reduced and the financial resources for care were far below. People are already being called out of retirement, and you will find a lot of them there. But overall that won’t be enough. There will be a cut-throat competition for the fastest treatment, which has already started.

“When the going gets tough, you would say: if you can walk, you help”

In the end, infected people without symptoms will also have to work? If the forecasts are correct, then yes. There is no other quick solution, also in other areas. If push came to shove, you would drop this quarantine rule and say: if you can walk, you help. You don’t sound particularly concerned. I think the question of the critical infrastructure is a greatly exaggerated problem for many areas. In extreme cases, for many areas outside of the healthcare sector, it doesn’t matter whether I infect someone else or not. On the other hand, we avoid the crucial, uncomfortable question of disaster control: What losses do we accept so that our society can continue? Instead, we appease with the sentence that we are “well positioned”.

“We are still in the Stone Age, although we have all the data”

Could the healthcare sector have taken better precautions? The joke is that we had all of that, but it all went away with the end of the Cold War. We had so-called emergency hospitals and we had agreements with the sisterhoods of the aid organizations, especially the Red Cross. They could all be recruited and then assigned to the public hospitals. That was a gigantic reserve army. This has also been given up for cost reasons. Even after the flood disaster, you had complained about the lack of disaster preparedness in Germany. Is Germany simply not properly prepared for extreme cases? Yes, unfortunately. The data that was available – flood levels, weather forecasts – are all there, but were not linked and do not appear on a real-time monitor at the district administrators and in the district offices, which then immediately see what is going on in their community and can make decisions. We’re still in the Stone Age, even though we have all the dates. It’s just so sad that our society doesn’t use it.

“How naïve we are…”

We have a Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance… …that can do a lot more than it should. It is there for war and has no competence for civil protection. This is only now to be changed by involving the federal states in the facilities of the Federal Office, as one of the consequences of the flood disaster. I doubt that’s the right conclusion. The Federal Office for Civil Protection has to go to the Federal Chancellery, as is the case in all responsible companies: the crisis manager sits on the executive board. What conclusions should we draw? At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw how naïve we are in the field of mask production. We had outsourced all of the protective clothing to other countries. Now there are considerations to create German databases to reduce dependence on American ones, that would be a step forward. My favorite example is the city-state of Singapore: it concludes supply contracts with other companies on the mainland if the suppliers are willing to give a six-month delivery guarantee even in the event of war. But ask the operators of Nord Stream II whether there is a six-month rule in there. We were very trusting and naïve when we imagined the international division of labour. And that falls on our feet in the event of a disaster? That’s the way it is.


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