Disasters often lead to chaos, but how long the chaos lasts depends largely on the actions of the affected communities and whether all local resources are being used effectively. The longer it takes businesses to become fully operational, the longer it takes for the community as a whole to recover.
Recovery following a disaster is a complex, chaotic effort at best. Multiple agencies and levels of government respond to various needs and requests, often with limited or incorrect information, in order to return life to a state of normalcy. One key portion of this return to normal is reestablishment of routine commerce to provide goods and services. As a party of vested interest, the private sector can be a central player in recovery efforts.
Incorporating the Private Sector – The Elephant in the Room The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has recognized this often overlooked but crucial partnership and incorporated it into the National Disaster Response Framework (NDRF), creating a new Community Support and Capacity Building Recovery Support Function. The goal of this function is to facilitate cooperation between all levels of government and private enterprise to build relationships before a disaster and speed recovery through best practices after disaster strikes. It is unique as the first real codification of the “elephant in the room” that has always lurked in emergency planning – how to incorporate the private sector to make best use of all resources.
This need has not changed and, in fact, has become stronger. Communities, counties, states, tribes, and the federal government need to continue to engage the private sector. There are a great many success stories where this has been done effectively and created a boosted recovery capability that not only sped up recovery, but saved lives and property beyond what government assets alone could do. Private business needs government support to open roads, provide power, and enable reestablishment of commerce, and government agencies benefit from lessons from the private sector on supply chains, emergency operations, and community interface.
Taking the First Step – Invite, Talk & Share However, the first step in this information exchange seems to be the hardest. Although intentions are present to engage with the private sector, follow-through is often lacking. Local Emergency Planning Councils (LEPC) provide a good starting point. Inviting private sector representatives to observe emergency operations center drills is another, with the added benefit of gaining insight from people focused on efficiency and streamlined operations. Many large businesses run national- and regional-level emergency operations centers of their own, focused on caring for employees, ensuring resources are routed efficiently to areas most in need, and maintaining continuity of operations. Cross-talk between government and business-sector emergency management provides mutual benefits in terms of sharing after-action reviews and best practices as well as making key contacts before a disaster strikes.
There are several starting points for government emergency management officials to reach out to local business leaders. The Chamber of Commerce is a good starting point at the local level. A bit of research also will unearth local business associations and consortiums, and a meeting of industry representatives makes an excellent place to offer a “Disaster 101” briefing and invite participation in the overall effort. Nationwide chains, “big box stores,” and other large businesses can be reached through their corporate offices with arrangements made to share information. At the federal level, the Departments of Labor, Commerce, and Transportation can facilitate beneficial liaisons.
Gaining Trust & Building Stability Gaining the trust of these partners also is a key factor. They are, after all, in the business of making money and have to know that trade information or corporate details will not be made public for their competitors. This is a small price to pay, though, for support from businesses that can feed, clothe, house, employ, and supply hundreds of thousands of people. This support can be essential in making recovery far less chaotic.
It is not hard to make a case for partnership to those whose very livelihoods rest on community stability, but the effort has to begin with government personnel. Business leaders may have thorough continuity and contingency plans for their particular business or sector, but may not know what they can offer to local, tribal, state, and federal disaster response agencies until the question is asked. Once that first call is made, the true effort can begin to the betterment of all involved. Disasters will never be less chaotic or complex to manage, but having more tools available in the recovery toolbox will go a long way to making the periods of chaos shorter.
Gordon Hunter is a retired U.S. Air Force major with 24 years of service: 15 on active duty in mission support fields to include security forces, civil engineering, disaster preparedness, explosive ordnance disposal, and Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers (RED HORSE) heavy combat engineering; and nine as the deputy commander of the 8th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team in Colorado. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and holds a masters degree in homeland security from the Naval Postgraduate School. He currently is employed by Chenega Applied Solutions as an operations evaluator for the National Guard Bureau CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear) Response Enterprise Standardization Evaluation Assistance Team.