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HS 193 – “American Blackout” with Dr. Robert Bristow

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Dr. Robert Bristow is the Medical Director of Emergency Management at New York Presbyterian Hospital, Director of Disaster Medicine at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, faculty member of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness in the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, and consultant to National Geographic’s new film “American Blackout.”

He explains what would happen if there was a national power failure in the United States caused by a cyber-attack. He shares some things to keep in mind for emergency preparedness.

Find out more about National Geographic’s film at www.survivetheblackout.com.

Narrator: Welcome to the Holistic Survival Show with Jason Hartman. The economic storm brewing around the world is set to spill into all aspects of our lives. Are you prepared? Where are you going to turn for the critical life skills necessary for you to survive and prosper? The Holistic Survival Show is your family’s insurance for a better life. Jason will teach you to think independently, to understand threats and how to create the ultimate action plan. Sudden change or worst case scenario, you’ll be ready. Welcome to Holistic Survival, your key resource for protecting the people, places and profits you care about in uncertain times. Ladies and gentlemen, your host Jason Hartman.

Jason Hartman: Welcome to the Holistic Survival Show. This is your host Jason Hartman, where we talk about protecting the people places and profits you care about in these uncertain times. We have a great interview for you today. And we will be back with that in less than 60 seconds on the Holistic Survival Show. And by the way, be sure to visit our website at HolisticSurvival.com. You can subscribe to our blog, which is totally free, has loads of great information, and there’s just a lot of good content for you on the site, so make sure you take advantage of that at HolisticSurvival.com. We’ll be right back.

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Start of Interview with Dr. Robert Bristow

Jason Hartman: It’s my pleasure to welcome Dr. Robert Bristow to the show. He is the medical director of emergency management at New York Presbyterian hospital, the director of disaster medicine at Columbia University College of physicians and surgeons, and a faculty member of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness in the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. And he’s also a consultant to National Geographic’s movie or documentary, I don’t know what the appropriate term is, American blackout. Which has got a really amazing website, survivetheblackout.com. And it’s a pleasure to have him here today. Robert, how are you?

Dr. Robert Bristow: I’m good, thank you and I’m very excited to be on your show.

Jason Hartman: Good, good. And I’m glad the power is working. So let’s kind of dive into this very ugly scenario, and just people I guess Robert, just really need to understand that how intrical electricity is to the entire planet nowadays. I mean it’s everything. Without electricity, the water won’t run, the sewers won’t work, nothing really works without power. Your thoughts?

Dr. Robert Bristow: No, I absolutely agree. I think we’re very dependent on electricity. Certainly there are places in the world and places in our country that are less dependent on electricity. There are places like New York for example, a lot of our water actually comes from upstate and their water system. So we’ll continue to flow for some time after the power goes out, but on the west coast when the power goes out, they lose water immediately. So there are places where there’s no resilience, and we’d like to seek out emergency management where they actually have the capacity to absorb a certain amount of loss of power with minimal consequences. But you’re right. Most of the country is very vulnerable, and they can lose power then have significant problems.

Jason Hartman: Right. And also it’s fair to mention, although this isn’t the plot of the movie that you consulted for, but depending on how power is lost, it’s a solar flare, if it’s an EMP, some sort of electrical magnetic issue like that that fries basically every electronic device, that’s a lot worse than just having the power grid not work. So like you mentioned with New York because of the topography that your water will flow but if people’s radios don’t work and things like that it’s worse, right?

Dr. Robert Bristow: Yeah, that’s definitely a different scenario and a more difficult one to sort of plan for and respond to. So the scenario depicted in the movie is basically a cyber-attack where our electrical grid is compromised. So there is some sense, even early on if people have the right information, that we do have some capacity to recover as soon as we can work out how the system of attack and determine what the problem is, then reboot the system. So it’s a little bit different than a doomsday scenario where there’s a situation that disrupts part or the entire world. And then all communications go out and then fry our systems, as you put it. And then there’s very little capacity to recover quickly. It’s essentially rebuilding everything that we have. So that’s a different scenario and a quite complicated one.

Jason Hartman: Right. That’s the worst case scenario. That’s the Stone Age scenario, as I call it.

Dr. Robert Bristow: It’s interesting, as I was watching the movie I was thinking, “This is actually the worst case scenario, but you’re actually describing something that’s actually much worse.”

Jason Hartman: It’s much worse than that. Yeah, absolutely. Well, tell us more about the movie. Again, it’s entitled American Blackout. Give us the general plot, if you would.

Dr. Robert Bristow: So the general plot is a cyber-attack on the electrical grid of the United States, and because of technology and because of the way the grid actually developed, there are some intriguing vulnerabilities to our system. It’s a big system, it’s sort of controlled by three grids, eastern and western and a Texas grid that are interconnected and sort of depend on each other but function optimally. So when one or two of the grids actually go down, we lose all three grids. And from a cyber-attack it would take quite a bit of time and I think the scenario accurately predicts about the amount of time it would take us to sort of fix the problem and reboot the system.

So we basically lose power in the entire country at one of the times when we’re most vulnerable, in July so it’s a very hot time of year in much of the country. And a lot of people are dependent on air conditioning as well as other things, and it’s to optimize their health. So obviously, losing electricity in July and January is different than losing electricity at other times of the year.

Jason Hartman: Yeah, that’s a very good point. Well, how does a cyber-attack work? And I don’t know if you… this is not your field – you’re a doctor, you deal on the emergency management side, but I don’t understand. How can someone in say, the Ukraine, initiate a cyber-attack against the US? What do they do to do that? Do they go to a website for an electric utility company and hack it somehow? Or what really happens?

Dr. Robert Bristow: Again, yeah I’m an expert in emergency management so that might be a better question to someone that actually better understands the systems that actually drive our electrical grid, but what I do understand and know is that all of the grids are run by computers, so it’s a very complicated system that’s based in three specific areas that are run by computers. And so what would happen is… also, there are enormous security systems in place that don’t allow people to access the actual computer technology that’s running the grids, or the computer program that’s running the grids.

So the scenario is actually some very smart, gifted computer person that has determined a way, or come up with a way to actually penetrate all of those securities in place and inject something like a virus or a worm into the computer program that’s running the grid. And what that would do, is it would cause an automatic shutdown of the actual grid. Once the system is aware that it’s been violated, the securities have been violated and the systems aren’t functioning optimally it sort of triggers a shutdown of the grid. So there are a lot of unknowns, and does that technology actually exist, is there someone that’s bright enough to be able to penetrate the safeguards we have in place?

We sort of call this scenario a low risk, high impact. Because what we think we know is that it’s very unlikely that someone can do that, particularly like the Ukraine, but if in fact someone does develop the capability to do that, it will certainly have a tremendous impact on the country if someone actually has that much information, knowledge and technology that they can penetrate our computers that run our grid and cause them to malfunction and shut down.

Jason Hartman: Very scary scenario. Well, what would happen in a national power failure scenario? Tell us about how that works, and of course all of the emergency services would be massively impacted. Give us sort of the details on how that unfolds.

Dr. Robert Bristow: Well, so interestingly enough, this is something we think about a lot in emergency management, and particularly New York we’ve had a couple of power outages in 1977 and 2003, and then we had significant challenges with super storm Sandy, where we lost power for several days in part of the city and several of our major hospitals were impacted by the flooding and lost not only main power, but their backup power.

So this is something we’ve been thinking about for a long time and what we’ve done is sort of developed the ability to sustain our services from a hospital and city perspective to the best of our ability for a minimum of 96 hours and possibly longer. Hospitals are actually now required through the Joint Commission which is a body that regulates hospitals and credits them to demonstrate that they have in a blackout scenario or other major scenarios that would impact the community, we have the ability to be self-sufficient for up to 96 hours, meaning that we can generate our own electricity, our food, our water, our medical supplies, to continue to take care of our patients and respond to the event.
And most of us have actually tried to go beyond that 96 hour mark, particularly areas that have been affected by disasters to sort of optimize our services. So the city, again, we work very closely with the office of emergency management in New York City and the New York City department of health, Greater New York Hospital Association which represents the interest of the majority of hospitals in the New York city area, and the State Department of Health as well as the Federal Government, but primarily the Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response.
So we do joint planning, money flows in and out of the system to sort of help us prepare and meet some of our identified goals. So at least a few days into the blackout, things will probably have enough support based on our preplanning, prepositioning of resources, sort of maintain most of the services as to provide people with what they need.

If we go into week two, then most of our planning hasn’t reached quite that far so we would have significant challenges. Thinking about how to provide people with just basic things like food and water and a cool place to rest. So on some levels we’re very prepared, and some would argue that we may be over prepared as we’re thinking about these catastrophic events that could affect us. But my real concern – think hospitals and governments are really doing their best – my concern is that the community and individuals aren’t doing what they could be doing.

I think there needs to be some awareness in the community, and I hope this will come through in the movie, that in a catastrophic event like a national blackout, obviously there would be some resources that would be available for people. But there are limitations on their resources particularly as time progresses – so to the extent that individuals and families can do some preplanning, come up with their own plans of how they would take care of themselves and their loved ones, and even more importantly communities, how communities should sort of come together and do some joint planning, identify resources they have in their community that could support them so they could build some resilience within the individuals, the families, and the communities that would allow them to actually better weather the storm without needing outside assistance. The more people that can sort of be self-sufficient during a ten day blackout, the less strain and demand there is on the system that is trying to respond.

Jason Hartman: You know, that’s an absolutely important point that I just want to reiterate. Some might say, although they’d be way off base, that the concept of survivalism is a selfish concept. No, it’s actually a very selfless concept. Because if you can take care of yourself and you won’t become a strain on the system, you leave an opening for other people to get help. And if everybody just adopts that mentality, god. You look at the Mormons and if you were in Utah during a disaster, gosh. You’d probably fair pretty darn well. It’d hardly be any inconvenience at all because everybody’s so prepared and they’re not a strain on the system. It’s kind of like that old saying, “the best thing you can do for the poor is to not be one of them”.

Dr. Robert Bristow: And you can help them not be one of them, right?

Jason Hartman: Well that’s the second best thing. But the first thing you’ve got to do is just take care of your own needs so you don’t take from the collective and the collective can afford to serve somebody else.

Dr. Robert Bristow: What’s actually very interesting and I think my favorite plot and character arch in the movie that revolves around a prepper in Colorado who’s obviously done everything he needs to do to prepare for exactly the event at hand. The problem is he’s done it independently in isolation without involving the community, and as you see as the news progresses, even though he’s well prepared, since he hasn’t involved the community, the community begins to encroach on him and actually compromised the resources that he actually has available and it creates a lot of movie drama where there’s a lot of conflict and violence. So again, it’s good to be individually prepared but there needs to be a real sense of community. People are working together with the resources that they have because that’s not in place, and there’s a real tendency to move toward anger and frustration and even violence as the scenario continues to develop.

I had the opportunity to travel to Japan right after that enormous disaster that we wouldn’t have thought possible in the modern era where they had an earth quake, tsunami and a nuclear disaster happen at the same time. And I got there about day 7 and we went into some of these communities that had been dramatically affected that had essentially been cut off from the rest of the country and the world and they were actually doing okay. There was enough sense of community. They had been anticipating a similar type of disaster but not quite the proportion that they were experiencing and they had identified places where they could house the survivors, they had identified water and food in the community and they were working together in a very cohesive way to actually take care of their needs without needing additional government assistance.

So that was a beautiful example of actually what’s possible. And I think we need more of that in this country. We need people to actually be thinking about that, particularly in cities like New York where often it’s hard to identify community. So that’s what I think we need more of, and I hope that the movie will sort of move the needle a little bit so that people begin to think wow, this might be possible. And what can I do at the individual, family and community level to protect myself and my community?

Jason Hartman: Tell us what happens with the emergency medical people? How do you staff for disasters? How do you prepare? What goes on? Give us some insight here as to the internal workings of your training and what happens at the hospitals? You mentioned 96 hours for self-sufficiency, which in the overall scheme of things isn’t much, but it’s certainly better than nothing and probably better than a lot of countries. But what happens in your training? What else do you guys learn that would be interesting to know for the listeners?

Dr. Robert Bristow: Well, there’s been a lot of work on staffing because hospitals cannot run without staff. So we’ve done some research trying to better understand who would come to work and what would be some of the barriers to coming into work. So one of the things we’ve done is we’ve rally encouraged our staff to have their own emergency preparedness plans with their family. So that they feel comfortable coming to work and that their family is okay. So they’ve actually thought through scenarios, they have supplies on hand, so they feel comfortable leaving their family and actually coming into the hospital to actually work.

The other thing that’s been really interesting in hospitals in the southeast that have had the current weather events, particularly hurricanes have developed things called Ride-Out & Recovery Teams. So they’ve identified people that either have uncomplicated lives, or are willing to sort of be in the hospital during an event that would actually come in prepared to stay for a few days or longer. Obviously this would be a scenario where they’d actually come into the hospital prepared to stay for a few days, they would be part of the ride out team. And then another group of people that would be coming would be the recovery team. They would then come in at some point and relieve those people. And at a hospital level we’ve done a lot of planning making sure that we can house and feed and provide what those staff members need to allow them to do their work.

Jason Hartman: Yeah, that’s a good point and it’s a good point that there’s a focus on making sure that they have their own plan so that they are willing to leave their families and come in and help others, yeah. Very good point. So, Robert, very interesting topic here. When will the movie be out, or how can people see it?

Dr. Robert Bristow: The movie will actually come out this Sunday on the National Geographic channel at 9pm eastern standard time. It’s going to be a national premier, so they can watch it on the National Geographic channel. It’s a website as you’ve mentioned that has a lot of useful information.

Jason Hartman: So survivetheblackout.com and Robert Bristow, thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. Robert Bristow: Yeah, it was my pleasure. Thank you.

Narrator: Thank you for joining us today for the Holistic Survival Show. Protecting the people, places and profits you care about in uncertain times. Be sure to listen to our Creating Wealth Show, which focuses on exploiting the financial and wealth creation opportunities in today’s economy. Learn more at www.JasonHartman.com or search “Jason Hartman” on iTunes. This show is produced by the Hartman Media Company, offering very general guidelines and information. Opinions of guests are their own, and none of the content should be considered individual advice. If you require personalized advice, please consult an appropriate professional. Information deemed reliable, but not guaranteed.

Transcribed by Ralph

The Holistic Survival Team

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Episode: 193

Guest: Dr. Robert Bristow

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