Private Sector Logistics Support for Disasters, aka. To Stockpile or Not to Stockpile

I recently had an article brought to my attention by my friend Keri.  The article is titled Home Depot or Homeland Security and is written by Max Brooks. Before I dive into some commentary on the article and related matters, I want to give a bit of an introduction of Max Brooks.  While many of you may not know of him, you might know of his work; and I’m quite sure you know of his father and his father’s work.  What seems so unlikely is that this article, and others, have been written by Max for West Point’s Modern War Institute.

Max Brooks is the author of, among other books, the New York Times best seller World War Z.  His father is Mel Brooks, who, in my opinion, is the greatest comedic writer and director of all cinema.  Max is a non-resident fellow at the Modern War Institute (MWI).  He has published three zombie-themed books: World War Z, the Zombie Survival Guide, and The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks.  I’ve written in the past about the perspective that unorthodox scenarios can bring to homeland security and emergency management.  Max’s writings inspire just that, bringing him to be recognized by the MWI and Naval War College.  You can check out his biography and other information about him here.

As a fellow of the MWI, Max Brooks has been working on a series of lectures and papers.  The one I’m discussing here was posted about a year ago by the MWI.  In his paper, he briefly outlines the role of the Defense Logistics Agency and the importance of the private sector in supporting disaster response and recovery as well as the military.  He smartly identifies this as a potential vulnerability, but I’ve also seen first-hand the reality behind it.

During the 9/11 response, a representative from Grainger sat in the Logistics Section of the NYS Emergency Operations Center.  While the State of New York owns a lot of resources, the availability of those resources, the practicality of moving those resources, and the timeliness of getting those resources to where they were needed (generally the metro-NYC area) sometimes wasn’t workable, despite the nature of the emergency – especially when those resources are more in the nature of supplies and small equipment, and needed in mass quantity.  With several warehouses in and around the metro-NYC area, Grainger could have orders processed and delivered quickly and efficiently.  The same holds true for other companies, which were also leveraged during this response.

Stockpiling is a smart practice, but it needs to be looked at from a practical and fiscal perspective.  The Civil Defense era saw a lot of stockpiling.  Food, water, cots, blankets, radiological detection equipment, fuel, and other supplies.  Most of this went unused for years until officials saw the utility of drawing on these stockpiles in times of natural disaster.  Still, food and water have a shelf life, as does fuel.  Stocks had to be rotated to ensure viability.  Rodents, insects, and water damage goods like cots and blankets.  Mechanical equipment needs to be maintained, even in dis-use.  The physical space, money, and people needed to manage these rarely used stockpiles have a limited return.

Still, stockpiling is a good thing.  You just have to be smart about what you stockpile and where you position it.  Many states maintain several emergency equipment stockpiles.  The purpose of the stockpiles is to support local governments in extended life-safety activities.  Generators, chain saws, and potable water distribution are among the equipment available.  These do, indeed take up space and require regular maintenance.  The prevalence of floods and storms in the northeast, however, make these high demand items by local governments.  The positioning of the stockpiles helps ensure a timely delivery, often with the support of other state agencies.

There are limits, though, to the ability of a government agency to store, maintain, and distribute supplies and equipment.  Some aren’t often requested, so don’t make sense to stockpile.  Others have such a short shelf life or require expensive maintenance that don’t make financial sense.  Still others may very often be available locally, albeit by the private sector.

Emergency management agencies in recent years have not only looked to private vendors to support supply needs, they have also looked to the private sector to model the management of logistics and resource tracking.  Companies like FedEx or UPS, despite leaving my packages at the wrong door, do an unparalleled job of moving and tracking goods.  Companies like WalMart and Target, who are often victims of local disaster impacts themselves, have a presence in disaster areas to not only restore their own operations, but to also provide as much as they can to communities in need.  Lowes and Home Depot have been better able to meet demands prior to and following disasters with tarps, building materials, generators, and sump pumps.  Despite improvements, the bureaucracy of government simply doesn’t have the capability or capacity to move the quantity of goods needed.

While I acknowledge that there is some vulnerability, as Max Brooks points out, in having a third party as a critical component of your supply chain, we also have strength and efficiency through these partnerships.  Emergency management must continue working with private sector partners, locally, nationally, and internationally to strengthen these partnerships and support the private sector in supporting response and recovery endeavors.

What are your thoughts on the depth of involvement of the private sector in supporting response and recovery?  Do we rely on them too much?  If so, what’s our alternative?

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC


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