Viewpoint: To improve emergency preparedness, adopt a supply chain perspective

Before disasters, local governments should line up partners to help deliver recovery supplies to their destinations quickly

By Charlotte Franklin

When disaster strikes a community, the delivery of essential recovery resources — water, food and medical supplies — is critical to emergency operations. It saves lives and helps get the community back to normal as soon as possible.

The biggest challenge in any crisis is getting the right resources to the right places at the right time. As some large-scale disasters in our nation have shown, the struggle to deliver and distribute critical supplies either saves the day or creates a "disaster within the disaster" as processes and systems fall apart.

To better prepare for emergencies, Arlington County, Va.’s Office of Emergency Management, on behalf of the Northern Virginia Emergency Response System (NVERS), is examining what happens before, during and after a disaster. What we have already learned about the management of disaster recovery resources has influenced our approach to emergency preparedness.

Focus on the supply chain

The traditional approach to disaster recovery resource management at the local level has been to address private businesses with a “Here’s what you can do for us” conversation. This government-centric approach to emergency planning has an inherent weakness: it focuses on disaster recovery resource management as an inventory issue.

We now look at it differently. We see it as a supply chain issue, which allows us to deliver critical supplies to our citizens in a faster, more efficient way.

The key to this approach is a new conversation in which local government asks private businesses, “How can we clear the way for delivery of emergency resources?” We know that businesses already have the expertise and processes in place to move supplies into the community. The types of supplies needed may change depending on the nature of the disaster, but delivery and distribution challenges remain consistent.

Implement a new public-private partnership

By changing the public-private conversation, Arlington County is revitalizing how the community prepares for emergency events. We are enabling a fast, smooth transition from the supply chain’s normal, cost-efficiency function to the life-saving focus needed in a crisis.

Key steps we’ve taken to implement this supply chain-focused partnership between local government and private businesses include:

1. Pre-determined locations for drop off and distribution of disaster recovery resources. By using the distribution paths that already exist in every community, businesses in our region can rely on food pantries, medical dispensing sites, temporary shelters and organizations such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army to help receive and hand out critical supplies.

2. The Public Recovery Resource Access Portal. Now in development, this online resource provides real-time updates in a disaster to help businesses and the general public know where to donate and receive supplies.

3. Regional Catastrophic Resource Planning Summit. In January 2013, a two-day summit will unite grocers, retailers, financial institutions, medical suppliers, supply chain experts and the critical infrastructure stewards that support them. Private sector representatives and local emergency managers will work together to develop tangible, pre-event remedies that every community can establish to mitigate the impact of a disaster on distribution and delivery of goods and services. Recommendations from the summit, which is funded by the Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Grant Program, will be made available to all communities as a guide for a supply chain-focused approach to emergency preparedness.

Above all, the most important component of any local government’s disaster planning approach is timing. Concrete plans for supply chain involvement must be in place well before an emergency occurs. Government needs to stand ready to clear the way for private businesses to deliver disaster recovery resources quickly and efficiently, so that lives and businesses can get back to normal.

When the emergency is in full swing, it is too late to start planning — it’s time to start doing.

Charlotte Franklin serves as the deputy coordinator of Arlington County, Va.'s Office of Emergency Management. To participate in the two-day summit, email her at

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