Prepared for Disaster?
County Government faces many challenges on a daily basis.
Public safety needs, ever-changing laws and mandates that require compliance, floods that take out county roads & bridges, fires that threaten citizens’ lives, and other natural disasters beyond anyone’s control all demand a county to respond. These examples are just some of the issues that often land at the feet of an elected official in county government. Being prepared to meet each of these challenges is sometimes a challenge in itself.
Often you can plan for everything imaginable, yet still be caught off-guard by the unexpected. How a county responds when in these “uncharted waters” is critical to how they serve the citizens who count on their county government day in and day out. In March of 2019, Fisher County’s new Law Enforcement Center was nearing its third anniversary of use. While there had been challenges along the way, things were running smoother, and Sheriff Allan Arnwine was nearing his 1-year anniversary since being appointed sheriff of Fisher County. The sheriff and his staff thought they were prepared for any situation that would be on the other end of a 9-1-1 call; little did they know what was just around the corner.
This disaster did not strike in the form of a tornado, this disaster did not require first responders and a multi-agency coordinated response, this disaster did not require an attorney to present evidence to a judge in a courtroom. This disaster hit quietly, and almost unnoticed at first, with a simple email and a simple click of the mouse. What followed would bring the County to its knees for weeks and would require leadership by numerous county elected officials to upright the ship and get Fisher County get back in business. You might be thinking, what could have happened? The disaster experienced is a complex problem that faces every organization in the 21st century, while the issue is complex, this threat can be described in one word: Ransomware. Ransomware is a type of malicious software designed to block access to a computer system until a sum of money is paid. Ransomware encrypts computer files in order to force the user to restore files from a backup or pay the malicious, criminal actor, to get your data back. Fisher County had every reason to believe that their in-place information technology support was of high quality. Imagine their dismay upon learning they were in fact exposed, vulnerable and without copies of their backup files. Fast forward beyond the lengthy discussion that took place as to how this could happen, the Chief Deputy working with the sheriff remembered a conference where he’d visited with a representative from Goldsmith Solutions, an IT firm that specializes in County Government.
What transpired within 3 hours of the phone call was a whirlwind of action items including a technician being onsite, isolation of the county’s 9-1-1 systems from the known threat, discovery and removal of the infected computer, an assessment of compromised data, and notification to Texas DPS to shut off the agency’s TLETS access since it too was exposed due to a non- compliant setup found.
Without a contract, up-front payment, or any real discussion of a future relationship, Goldsmith Solutions started acting in Fisher County’s best interest to mitigate the damage and help the county get the expertise needed to determine how to resolve this disaster. Sheriff Arnwine, representatives from Goldsmith Solutions, and a team from the Texas DPS Cyber Security Division then met with County Judge Ken Holt to bring him up to date and engage the Commissioners Court with pertinent information as this issue was complex and costly to solve.
Working together, in the months that followed, Fisher County:
Corrected issues found by Goldsmith Solutions
Budgeted for how to address IT needs moving forward
Brought the Law Enforcement Center up to current technology standards
Implemented a contract with pro-active monitoring, backup, and disaster recovery
Fisher County has since gone on to do the same for the Fisher County Courthouse and is currently building a modern countywide network to serve all county offices.
Goldsmith Solutions has been proud to work with Judge Holt, Sheriff Arnwine, and all of the elected officials at Fisher County. Moving the county to a modern, secure,
IT system will allow the citizens of Fisher County to have confidence in county services as everything becomes electronic and cloud based as technology evolves and is intertwined in our daily lives.
While the malicious actor was never fully determined, it was discovered that the email address in the ransomware demand was from Switzerland. What this criminal intended for evil, Fisher County, has used for good.
Fisher County has learned from this disaster and is better prepared for the future.
Citizens can again have confidence that Fisher County, like all Texas counties, will rise to the occasion and go the extra mile to deliver for the citizens they serve.
Q&A with Fisher County Judge Ken Holt:
What have you learned from this experience?
Technology is not something that follows the age old saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” A modern, secure IT system requires constant monitoring and improvement to keep up with the fast-paced world we live in.
What would you do differently if given the chance?
Obviously avoiding this situation to begin with would be ideal, but we as a county have learned so much through this process, and Fisher County is stronger today because of the steps we have taken since.
What would you tell another county?
Team up with a trusted partner that understands county government first and information technology second. County government is unique and requires a vendor that understands how to build a solution that can match that uniqueness. Working together on a common plan to address IT needs and security across all departments and offices is critical, as you are only as strong as your weakest link.