For Torrance, a city of 150,000 inhabitants located in Southern California, 2020 was a trying year. On March 1st, the city experienced a cyber-incident which had an adverse impact on city operations. The attack crippled the city’s server, website, and all applications to pay bills and operate. Just two weeks later, Torrance declared a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic. These two major crises underscored the need for cities to be agile—and able to swiftly adopt digital technologies—at a time when disruptions can hit suddenly and cascade quickly.
Faced with two major crises, city leaders scrambled to set up a virtual emergency operations center (EOC) through Slack, a cloud-based messaging platform hosted by Amazon Web Services. The city used Google Drive for its forms and documents instead of email, as it was both safer and more efficient. Within a week, the city had transitioned from brick and mortar, paper and pencil, to virtual operations. It was then able to connect area hospitals, local school district, Red Cross, Salvation Army and Business groups like auto dealerships, hotels, and the local Mall to the City’s EOC for real-time information sharing. And when Torrance and Southern California experienced civil unrest a couple of months later, Slack allowed the city to flatten the information curve and share information, internally and confidentially, for increased situational awareness into the events.
The city was able to funnel live pictures of events directly into Slack where everyone involved in the management of the response could see and better understand the situation. “There were no longer silos that could form because the departments were all dissolved,” said Jeffrey Snoddy, emergency services manager for the city.
Lessons from the cyberattack
The experience was an eye-opening moment and Torrance has since developed a cybersecurity plan. Reminders are sent to staff regarding practices to shore up security, such as changing passwords regularly and connecting from home with city-issued devices only. The city also does self-risk assessments of its vulnerabilities.
“I tell everyone resilience and agility are a must to survive and to thrive,” said Aram Chaparyan, city manager of Torrance. “Governments move at a slower pace because we have fiduciary responsibility. We have oversight by our elected officials and the public. We don’t have the luxury of time. It’s not if, it’s when we’ll have another crisis and it’s all about creating that state of readiness.”
Forging partnerships with the private and public sector ahead of time was key to enabling Torrance to tackle these multiple challenges. The city’s IT department had started to assess the strength of its network and cybersecurity years ago and had established relationships with the federal government’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
“They did an assessment for us. We had all their names, contacts, and recommendations, so when the cyber incident occurred, it was a simple phone call and they knew our systems,” said Snoddy. “They knew our strengths and weaknesses and were able to provide instant care for the city. That’s because the city was very forward-leaning.”
Pandemic and post-pandemic challenges
The cyber incident was traumatic enough, but then the pandemic brought other challenges as it did for all cities. Besides its health impacts, COVID-19 was a major blow to Torrance’s economy as the retail and hospitality sectors shut down, unemployment rose, and tax revenue shrank. The city lost $26 million in revenue in the last fiscal year because of the pandemic—equivalent to almost 15% of its general fund. While Torrance is already on a slow path to recovery, its reserves were depleted and hotels, one of its more significant revenue sources, have yet to return to normal operation.
The city’s leaders remain upbeat despite the series of disruptions. “As horrible as the pandemic has been, it’s given us an avenue, a window of opportunity, and the virtual emergency operations center was a huge wake-up call because we were so embedded in that traditional big room with all the monitors. We now connect virtually and we accomplish just as much,” said Chaparyan.
Looking ahead, Chaparyan foresees a range of new challenges for municipal governments as urban economies and city life continue to evolve in the post-pandemic period. He notes that the reliance on sales tax as a revenue stream will have to diminish as more consumers shift to online purchases. The retail and office footprint in the city will change as many people continue to work from home. With green energy becoming more prominent in California, cities will move towards electric fleets, solar panels, and “one mile, one charge” systems. Torrance’s own one mile, one charge project, designed to facilitate the expansion of electric vehicle infrastructure so that a driver is never more than one mile from a charging station, has been successful, with 94% of the city covered.
Cities will also look more holistically at problems like homelessness and the demands of an ageing population. And they are planning more around diversity and inclusion.
“Sustainability, environmental stewardship, fiscal responsiveness, …. homelessness, affordability in housing, and social equity, those issues will carry on into the next 10 years. We have to plan and adapt to ongoing changes,” said Charparyan.