Melissa Boutwell: Fortifying Florida — urgency is key to protecting Florida’s public sector critical infrastructure

Red glowing word cyberattack on a black wall surrounded by green random letters
The time to act is now.

Floridians are well acquainted with natural disasters. After all, we’ve had a lot of practice.

With skills born of experience, we adeptly track emerging weather events, assess the risk to local areas, and implement emergency plans to protect families, homes, and businesses. Yet life-threatening weather is no longer the only major threat on Florida’s horizon.

Cyberterrorism has rendered the state’s technological landscapes as vulnerable as its coastlines. Public seaports, water treatment plants, school districts, airports, data centers, and city and county governments are now prime targets. Attacks are on the rise, particularly as public entities become increasingly reliant on automation and smart technologies.

In 2023 alone, cities of all sizes across the United States — including Atlanta; Chicago; Lowell, Massachusetts; Nashua, New Hampshire; and New Orleans — succumbed to cyberattacks. This Legislative Session, our Florida legislature recognized this with the passage of HB 473 and SB/HB 275, which address compliance with standards related to cybersecurity incidents and criminal penalties for tampering with critical infrastructure.

FBI Director Christopher Wray recently emphasized to Congress the unprecedented vulnerability of our nation’s critical infrastructure to cyber-physical threats. He urged a united effort at the national, state and local levels. Director Wray specifically highlighted how these attacks are designed to inflict tangible harm on American citizens and communities.

This alarming trend further underscores the urgent need for comprehensive cybersecurity measures and heightened vigilance across all sectors of society, especially the entities like energy utilities, water utilities, and more that keep our communities literally operating undisrupted. Compounding this growing threat is the reality that technological advances have far outpaced cybersecurity education and workforce development.

There is true urgency for Florida public policymakers and public service entities to ensure our employees who operate our critical infrastructure know how to recognize, prepare for and mitigate cyberattacks.

According to the 2023 National Cyber Workforce and Education Strategy report, over 90% of jobs require digital skills; however, nearly 30% of American workers lack those skills. Industry experts also estimate that less than 1% of the operational technology (OT) workforce has the skills necessary to respond to a cyberattack.

More troubling for Florida, a recent state study suggests that if more than one community were attacked simultaneously, we would be very short-handed statewide. By any metric, integrated automation workers are in short supply, particularly in the public sector, where agencies are understaffed yet responsible for managing some of the country’s most critical infrastructure and operations.

Fortunately, Florida’s legislative leaders have recognized the need for action, but local agencies need to act on the opportunity created. Through strategic investments and partnerships with organizations like Automation Strategy & Performance (ASP), the state is taking decisive steps to bolster its cybersecurity preparedness.

The 2024 Florida Cybersecurity Initiative, spearheaded by ASP, aims to upskill the state’s critical infrastructure workforce and certify them as OT cybersecurity specialists.

OT certification is different from IT Cybersecurity certification. It includes IT certifications but adds cybersecurity protocols specific to physical yet networked devices that operate plants, manufacturing, ventilation, and more.

Under the 12-month program, participating workers go through rigorous IT and OT network and security system cybersecurity certification and practice in simulated environments.

The unique value of the 2024 Florida Cybersecurity Initiative is the accredited certification it offers. This one program combines multiple certifications to ensure that workers know what to do — and how to do it — when bad actors pose cybersecurity threats. With certified OT cybersecurity specialists, public sector leaders can be confident in their workers’ abilities to recognize threats, assess vulnerabilities, mitigate risk, monitor status and respond to penetrations.

We are excited that Florida has invested in offering this opportunity to public officials across all 67 counties. But the time to act is now: the state has set a goal to have over 100 public employees enrolled in this new program by June 30, 2024.

Getting the word out on this program is the first step. We ask all Florida public sector leaders — county Boards, municipal directors, port authority leaders, public hospital operation heads, engineering leaders and more — to reach out to us so we can provide an overview of the program and how you can participate and count yourself among those fortifying the state’s critical infrastructures.

Together, we can do the necessary work to harden and transform our vulnerable landscapes and make Florida a national leader in OT cybersecurity preparedness.


Melissa Boutwell is president of Automation Strategy & Performance (ASP), the largest and fastest-growing employer group providing scalable workforce solutions to the automation sector of critical infrastructure industries. ASP has been charged by the State of Florida and the Pathways for Career Opportunities Grant with upskilling public operational technical employees in all 67 counties across Florida through the 2024 Florida Cybersecurity Initiative

Guest Author


Florida Politics is a statewide, new media platform covering campaigns, elections, government, policy, and lobbying in Florida. This platform and all of its content are owned by Extensive Enterprises Media.

Publisher: Peter Schorsch @PeterSchorschFL

Contributors & reporters: Phil Ammann, Drew Dixon, Roseanne Dunkelberger, A.G. Gancarski, Anne Geggis, Ryan Nicol, Jacob Ogles, Cole Pepper, Gray Rohrer, Jesse Scheckner, Christine Sexton, Drew Wilson, and Mike Wright.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @PeterSchorschFL
Phone: (727) 642-3162
Address: 204 37th Avenue North #182
St. Petersburg, Florida 33704