Imagine a world where for weeks you can only leave the house for an hour a day, schools are closed, restaurants and bars are closed, food supplies are disrupted, public transport is for necessary journeys only and you have to wear a mask in shops. Last year a global pandemic was hard to imagine – this year we know exactly what it is like to live through one.
Now imagine the electrical supply going down for a week. No light or heat, potential disruptions to water supplies, transport networks, food supply chains and communications would be the more obvious effects. But once you start thinking about it the repercussions go on and on.
Hard to imagine? Like a worldwide outbreak of a novel virus, a ‘black sky’ event, where power supplies go down for a prolonged period of time, is seen as a very real possibility. It could be caused by events like earthquakes, tsunamis or extreme weather. Perhaps less obviously it could be caused by a cyber-attacks, physical attacks on infrastructure, or even ‘space weather’. The sun has a major ejection of charged particles on average once every 100 years. In 1921 such an ejection created current surges that damaged telegraph systems and started fires in the US, including one near New York’s Central station leading to the geomagnetic storm to be know as the ‘New York Railroad Storm’. If a similar event occured today, in a world that is much more reliant on electrical systems, the results could be far more severe.
As with coping with a pandemic, being prepared is key to dealing with a black sky event. But how do you learn the lessons from a prolonged power outage without living through one? EARTH EX is a virtual simulation of what would happen in a major power outage. Companies, teams and families can all take part in EARTH EX for free to test their preparedness and develop strategies for coping should the power go down. The exercise is an opportunity to pull your team together, to pull out your policies and procedures, and immerse yourself in the scenario and decide which actions you need to work on to become more prepared.
John Heltzel, Director of Resilience Planning at the Electric Infrastructure Security Council, the organisation that runs EARTH EX says, “The reason we do EARTH EX, is to learn in a virtual environment. It’s one thing to learn lessons because you actually have to go through the catastrophe. But it’s much better to learn these lessons in an exercise environment.”
EARTH EX uses state of the art, high quality video simulations for setting the scenario and ‘video–injects’ that move the exercise forward. This year it is simulating the effects of an electromagnetic pulse, which can be caused by solar activity or a malicious attack and could significantly damage and disable power networks. The second scenario is a cyber-attack which also has the potential to cause a widespread loos of power. Both of these events were chosen as threats that are increasing in probability.
‘This year we’re simulating two of the more nefarious human actions that could cause a black sky event.’ – John Heltzel
Coronavirus and EARTH EX 2020
EARTH EX has not been unaffected by the the coronavirus pandemic. The exercise has been reworked so that it takes in to account the fact the restrictions caused by covid-19. In the past the EARTH EX team has encouraged business teams and families to get together to play the simulation, but as this may not be possible this year, the simulation is available to be played with individuals in a team logging on remotely. EARTH EX also want to use the opportunity to gather intelligence about how people have been coping with the pandemic. John Heltzel tells us more:
“Phase 3 is about giving the chance to everybody around the world what covid did to them. What impacts there were to their own lives and their own businesses. We’re also asking questions about what changes they think need to be made to protect supply chains. Because really….the supply-chain is king”
So you’ve got your plan – and then everything changes again
This is the fourth year of EARTH EX and feedback from the previous events has been used to improve the experience. John Heltzel has been telling us about a new component this year that helps increase the realism of the simulation:
“One of the unique things about EARTH EX is we use state-of-the-art video injects. We were one of the last companies that got to film in Hollywood, California right before they shut down because of covid, so we’ve got our videos in the can and they’re well done.
So the video injects are already exciting, but we’ve introduced a new element that, to be honest with you, I’ve never seen in any other exercise I’ve played. We call it the ‘Monte Carlo phase’ – if you’re familiar with the term it’s to do with gambling. How it works is that when you’ve made a decision in the simulation you can then ‘spin the wheel’, and then this gives a new set of video injects.
Each one of these injects is designed to simulate what it’s like in the real world where you’ve got your plan, maybe you’ve started to execute your plan, but then something else changes in the environment or you discover new information. This really happens, it’s happened in every disaster I’ve been a part of. So then we ask you, do you need to change your plan? What changes do you need to make to your plan?
The Monte Carlo phase is going to be exciting; I tell people that we want them to have fun with it. I promise though that it’ll be challenging -but that’s the whole point of doing the exercise.“
How to take part
To register to play go to https://www.eiscouncil.org/EarthEx.aspx before 31 October. The simulation will be available from 1 September until 31 October and can be played more than once. We’ve also compiled some frequently asked questions about the exercise whcih you can read here.