Modeling Center Helps Planners Avoid Disaster

February 2008
By Henry S. Kenyon

The National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center (NISAC) specializes in modeling how a terrorist attack or major disaster might affect national assets. The center maintains a group of highly trained specialists who use computer analysis tools to chart the potential implications and outcomes of a disruption in a key national network such as telecommunications or the power grid.
National facility simulates economic impact of disruptions to business, communications and financial networks.

Defending the critical infrastructure of the United States is a difficult and complex job. Federal agencies are tasked with determining the security of a variety of interconnected systems, which can affect entire regions—or the whole nation—in a catastrophic cascade of failures in the event of a major disaster or terrorist attack.

One organization responsible for modeling and simulating the impact of potential threats to the nation’s vital telecommunications, fuel, transport and financial framework is the National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center (NISAC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. NISAC is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’s) Office of Infrastructure Protection and is jointly operated by the Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories. The center prepares and shares analyses of critical infrastructure and key resources, outlining their interdependencies, vulnerabilities and consequences of disruption.

NISAC originated in the late 1990s when concern grew over the potential effects on computer networks and infrastructure caused by year 2000 computer coding flaws. A 1998 presidential directive outlined the importance of the nation’s critical infrastructures and the need to study how they were interrelated. This type of analysis had never been done before, says Lillian Snyder, a manager at NISAC’s Critical Infrastructure and Economic Analysis Department. The directive outlined seven major areas for study: telecommunications, water, transportation, electric power, oil and gas, banking and finance, and government services.

By the late 1990s, officials realized that with increased computerization, all of the seven infrastructure areas were becoming interdependent. Snyder notes that Sandia approached each of these industries and explained that infrastructure protection was now a major national issue. But at the time, the industries maintained that no business case existed for studying how they affected or interrelated with other infrastructures—they were only interested in their own vertical bottom lines. “We saw that as a national laboratory issue because we felt that the interdependencies between them [infrastructures] were growing greater. Automated teller machines didn’t work without electric power. Electric power didn’t work without gas. Gas didn’t work without transportation. The whole area was becoming really intertwined, mainly because of the advance of computerization and the growing interest in the Internet,” Snyder says.

Sandia and Los Alamos began looking across their facilities at the modeling work they had conducted over the last 15 to 20 years and examined how they could leverage these capabilities efforts into a useful program. This work also included knowledge management efforts designed to gather and analyze large amounts of data quickly. Snyder explains that NISAC grew out of this effort, as did other initiatives studying infrastructure interdependencies for the Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Defense Department. The program originally was funded by the Defense Department, but after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, funding shifted to the DOE before finally coming under the authority of the DHS in 2003.

Since its inception, NISAC has worked closely with the DOE because electric power, gas and oil infrastructures fall under the department’s mandate. Snyder notes that the DOE wanted to understand how its power-related infrastructures supported other areas such as telecommunications, banking and finance. She credits the DOE with being ahead of its time regarding the mapping of its relationship with other industries and infrastructures. “We realized that it was such an interdependent problem that you really needed to look at it from a systems view. Sandia specializes in systems analysis. DHS gave us the ability, for the first time, to look across all of these areas,” she says.

Because Sandia had been conducting infrastructure analysis before NISAC’s founding, it had used its own funds to develop several early modeling and simulation efforts that became a key part of the program. One study examined how the removal of assets in a particular infrastructure could cascade into other areas. This effort became the Fast Analysis Infrastructure Tool (FAIT), which is designed to synthesize infrastructure data and expert knowledge on infrastructure operations and interactions. The tool allows analysts to define relationships between assets across different infrastructures. These interdependencies are factored by characteristics such as proximity, known service boundaries and ownership. FAIT allows users to search other data sources, both within NISAC and across the Internet, to provide a more complete understanding of a particular asset.

FAIT also estimates the economic consequences of disrupting an asset. The tool’s regional economic analyst enters data from the affected area and couples them with other NISAC modeling results, such as estimates for the disruption’s duration and magnitude, to create a regional economic analysis. This regional picture provides analysts with an understanding of the direct and indirect economic consequences for each sector of the economy in every county in the analysis area.

Snyder shares that one of NISAC’s core resources is its staff. The personnel at Sandia and Los Alamos can gather huge amounts of data about ongoing events and, within a short time, determine impacts to affected infrastructures and their cascading events. At first, customers asked for tools and models, but she admits that what they really wanted were answers. NISAC personnel realized they had to develop an assortment of tools such as FAIT to permit the staff to answer questions quickly. The center’s analysts are a team of multidisciplinary experts with specialized Ph.D.s and master’s degrees in aspects of every infrastructure, she says.

The DHS is responsible for protecting 17 critical infrastructures in two tiers. Tier 1 assets are key facilities, systems and structures warranting significant additional infrastructure investment and defense. The loss or disruption of these assets could cripple the nation. The loss of Tier 2 assets, while not as debilitating, would still have major consequences. Snyder explains that this presents analysts with a 17-dimensional problem including challenges such as collecting and conveying information to the right personnel at the right time. The FAIT tool is a core asset for this work, she says.

Besides FAIT, the center has developed several industry-specific tools to accelerate incident analysis. These applications include the Railroad Network Analysis System and the Air Transport Optimization Model designed to study and understand the flow of commodities through the nation’s rail and air networks.

Another key tool is the NISAC Agent-Based Laboratory for Economics (N-ABLE). It is a large-scale macroeconomic simulation that models the complex internal supply chain and market dynamics of businesses in the U.S. economy. N-ABLE models the economy down to the individual firm. These virtual firms have individual buyers, supervisors, sellers and strategic planners who collectively move their companies through economic disruption and recovery.

NISAC also has capabilities in geospatial information systems, database and knowledge management. Snyder explains that this knowledge management ability is unique to Sandia. “We took all of the ability that we’d been working on over many years for the nuclear weapons complex and leveraged that into our critical infrastructure protection area, where we can gather huge amounts of information and make it usable to our analysts,” she says.

The center’s analysts work in a variety of teams such as the Computational Economics Group, which examines the complex economic issues underlying infrastructure interaction. For example, because the majority of U.S. businesses are small, it became necessary for NISAC to understand how the removal of small parts of the supply chain can have an impact on how the business infrastructure rearranges itself.

Both Sandia and Los Alamos acquire data from a range of commercial and government sources for use in NISAC reports and studies. Snyder notes that customers often demand immediate answers to questions. “As a national lab, you want to give the 100-percent correct answer. But sometimes the best answer you can give is better than no answer at all in the time frame it’s needed,” she says. The center also produces short-analysis white papers and longer, in-depth analysis papers.

Because of the economic impact of infrastructure disruption, NISAC employs a team of economists. Snyder explains that the first specialists working for the center were the economists. When initial infrastructure studies began in 1998, money was determined to be the single connecting theme for all of the different infrastructures. “If something goes out, what’s the common denominator that you can talk about from a national perspective? That was economics,” she says.

“What we deal with is consequence,” observes Ray Trechter, a manager in NISAC’s Systems Engineering and Analysis Group. He notes that one of the more important assessments for the government is the dollar amount of a disaster.

A new and important area of NISAC research is focused on a concept called resilience. Snyder explains that United States may never have enough resources to keep all of its infrastructures at peak operating capacity if an incident occurs. The question, she says, is how quickly can an infrastructure be brought back up to operation—how resilient is it once an incident occurs?

NISAC has been contacted by other agencies to determine the resilience of particular infrastructure sectors. Trechter shares that studies often find that the consequences of a disruption may not be as dire as originally anticipated. The results of these analyses allow the government to avoid inappropriate investments, he says.

The center examines the entire range of disasters. Snyder notes that the original idea was to focus only on terrorism, but after hurricane Katrina, authorities realized that all incidents must be considered. NISAC also provides experts to Defense Department exercises. Trechter adds that the Defense Department has launched its own initiative, the Defense Critical Infrastructure Protection (DCIP) program, to manage its critical infrastructure. DCIP has its own laboratory located at the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Dahlgren, Virginia, that conducts assessment work. NISAC partners with DCIP on analysis efforts.

As NISAC’s expertise grows, Snyder explains that its customers can work with the data provided by the center to develop return on investment costs for infrastructure defense. She adds that NISAC is working with the Transportation Security Administration to examine costs and consequences and to determine how much the government should invest in some of its mitigation strategies.

NISAC also collaborates with a variety of academic and research institutions to enhance its knowledge base. It has research relationships with schools such as the University of Minnesota for agriculture and Cornell University for transportation issues. “Wherever there is expertise, we will go out and work with these people because this is an enormous problem, and we’re not pretending to have a corner on all that knowledge,” she says.

Web Resources
National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center:
Department of Homeland Security:
Los Alamos National Laboratory:

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