Public-private partnerships are not a new concept to emergency management. There are municipalities, regional areas, and states that have formed committees and strategized how the private sector can provide support during a disaster. Certainly we have seen a lot of support, on both a large scale and locally, from the ‘big box’ stores, such as Wal-Mart, Lowes, and Home Depot. Tide’s Loads of Hope program, something so simple but extraordinarily impactful, provides a means for disaster victims to have clean clothing. Insurance companies have established a response capability to expedite their assessments and services to their clients. Private sector partners know that these things are not just good public relations, but that they have a means of supporting communities that government and relief organizations may not.
There is another aspect to public-private partnerships that doesn’t seem to be widely addressed, and that’s the community business. How can they help the community in a disaster? First, business continuity is essential, since they may also be impacted by the disaster. Small businesses don’t have the level of capability to leverage that large companies do. Yes, the SBA can help them with long-term recovery, but the ability of some small businesses to get back to operations quickly can directly help a community recover. I work with a lot of small communities, many of them serviced by small shops and independent grocers. There are no big box stores for many, many miles. For grocers, power outages result in spoiled food. Road closures result in crippling supply chain problems. While we’d like all businesses to have mitigation measures and preparedness for disasters, many small businesses simply don’t have the capitol to invest in things like generators and they obviously can’t control road closures.
What’s to be done? Local municipalities absolutely need to bring these small business owners to the table, establish relationships, identify their needs, and consider identifying them as part of the community’s critical infrastructure. The resilience of small grocers, lumber companies, and other purveyors is essential to the resilience and recovery of so many small towns. The impacts are easy to see… if a store can keep running, they are not only providing essential goods and services to the community, they are also supporting the economy by keeping their employees working. What do they need? Things like power and access, obviously, but tangential things like the availability of child care is huge. Following disasters schools usually close and often become community shelters. Many parents work when their kids are in school. If school is closed, they need access to child care.
How far can government go in supporting the private sector? Many governments tend to avoid supporting the private sector as if it were some kind of disease. It took many months to convince FEMA in the aftermath of Sandy to make dredging of private marinas eligible for disaster cost recovery. These marinas (mostly small businesses themselves) support capabilities of fire and police watercraft, recreation (which has economic impact), and a significant fishing and crabbing industry, which is the livelihood of many off and on shore. Obviously, FEMA needs to maintain accountability of funds and ensure they are being spent appropriately, but a big part of this was resistance to the idea of government providing direct support to the private sector.
While I agree that there are many nuances to this situation, it seems that in many cases the impact of small, local businesses in short-term recovery are disregarded, especially by state and federal governments, and that there exists a one-way door for business participation, where in this ‘partnership’ they are asked to provide goods and services, but how is government contributing to that partnership? With the big box stores and other large companies, local governments certainly help with some permit expediting and perhaps physical space to set up and access to utilities, there is typically not much support required beyond that. Small businesses may need more direct support to recover. They may need help clearing their private access road or parking lot. They may need the public road they are located on to be cleared for traffic sooner. They may need a generator that can power their building. They may need quantities of potable water brought on-site. Their employees may need child care or public transportation. These are things they either can’t immediately afford or simply don’t have access to. Local government may have better access to these resources, though, and with the justification of these small businesses providing essential goods and services to the community, the choice is easy.
Does this open government to potential criticism? Absolutely. Some business owners may claim discriminatory practices of government supporting some businesses and not others. Some tax payers may even complain about the use of tax dollars in such a fashion. While people may always complain, legal consequences and public relations problems should certainly be mitigated. The road to addressing this is preparedness. Engage your local attorney and the legal council for the state’s emergency management agency. Municipal laws and state laws regarding authorities that can be enacted during a state of emergency need to be explored to not only make sure that local government has the legal ability to provide this support, but the conditions and procedures required for doing so. The legal sources and procedures and standards for providing this support should be documented and made part of the local emergency plan. The municipality should have a criteria for determining what types of businesses could be included in such direct support (what is regarded as the municipality’s privately owned critical infrastructure?), and even outline requirements for those businesses, such as having a business continuity plan, implementing certain resiliency measures, or participating in coordination activities prior to a disaster. Memoranda of understanding may be required, or other legal tools to identify the terms and conditions of support.
While this type of support from government to the private sector isn’t common, there are some municipalities who do it well. I’m certainly interested in hearing what you’ve implemented and what best practices you’ve identified.
© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP