Private-Sector Organizations Earn a Seat in the Emergency Operations Center

Since Hurricane Katrina, the public and private sectors have joined hands during disasters.

by / May 17, 2010

[Photo courtesy of Wal-Mart.]

The October 2007 Southern California wildfires were a severe test of the state’s emergency management capabilities. While 1,500 homes were destroyed and more than 500,000 acres of land burned, almost half a million people were evacuated from their homes. The devastating fires were also a test of the state’s new emphasis on public-private partnerships in disaster response.

As the fires began burning across Southern California on Oct. 20, Peter Ohtaki, executive director of the California Resiliency Alliance, and Jill Rulon, senior vice president of the California Grocers Association, made their way to the State Operations Center (SOC) in Sacramento, Calif., to serve as liaisons between the state emergency management team and their member business organizations.

As representatives of the business community, Ohtaki and Rulon were given access to situation reports twice a day and distributed the highlights to partner business organizations and companies via e-mail. They also relayed requests for information from partners.

“One bank requested the evacuation areas by ZIP code so they could assess the impact on employees and customers to put mortgage payment forgiveness in place,” Ohtaki said. “So we were able to put that information together for them.” There were many questions about the impact on utilities in San Diego County, and representatives of the California Utilities Emergency Association also were in the SOC to share information on the power grid’s status.

Photo: Wal-Mart volunteered logistical staff to unload and distribute goods at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego during the October 2007 Southern California wildfires. Courtesy of Wal-Mart.

Rulon worked with suppliers to send food and 300,000 bottles of water to the shelters that needed them most.

“There was lots of media attention on Qualcomm Stadium, so many organizations just sent relief aid there, but actually there were many other shelters that needed aid directed to them,” Ohtaki said. “What went wrong during Katrina went right during those wildfires. People generously donating food and supplies were much better directed.”

The Change After Katrina

If 9/11 was a cruel awakening to the fact that the United States needed to beef up its domestic security, Hurricane Katrina was the watershed moment when people realized that emergency management officials couldn’t respond adequately to major disasters without better coordinating efforts with the private sector. And during Katrina, corporations such as Wal-Mart and other large retailers used their sophisticated logistics infrastructure to help communities bounce back.

“Katrina was a wake-up call to governments that they couldn’t handle the response themselves,” said Lynne Kidder, senior vice president for public-private partnerships at the Business Executives for National Security (BENS). “There were a lot of ‘Aha!’ moments during Katrina — for nongovernmental organizations, private businesses and civic leadership.”

By improving communications with government agencies, private utilities can speed the repair of power, water and other services. An association of grocers can access its network to provide food, water and other supplies to emergency responders and evacuation centers.

Since 2002, BENS has been working to help establish partnerships between emergency management teams and businesspeople with an interest in the community’s resilience. It has established organizations in New Jersey, Georgia, Kansas, California, Iowa and Colorado.

“Before Katrina, this was really a hard sell,” Kidder said. “The business people would say it wasn’t their job, and the government leaders would say they’ve got this under control. That all really changed after Katrina.”

The drive to improve communications with the private sector has been under way in California for several years.

Legislation that passed in 2005 directed government agencies to set up a voluntary program to integrate private businesses and nonprofit organizations into governmental disaster planning programs. In 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Executive Order S-04-06, which called on the California Emergency Management Agency (Cal EMA) to formally make the private sector part of the state’s disaster response system. Cal EMA has signed memorandums of understanding with groups like the California Grocers Association, the California Utilities Emergency Association, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp.

The effort has two main goals, said Tina Curry, assistant secretary of Cal EMA’s Planning, Protection and Preparedness Division. One is to help businesses that have a statewide presence get more situational awareness; the other is to improve resource sharing. Many statewide businesses have sophisticated infrastructure for dealing with disasters and a lot to offer, she said. “The name of the game is becoming more efficient and prompt at prioritizing which things are needed urgently and which can wait. That’s why we have developed a Business and Utilities Operations Center in our Emergency Operations Center,” Curry said. “Every disaster is different and a dynamic situation. We need that ongoing dialog.”

Wal-Mart’s Role

One private-sector player that contributed during the wildfire response was retail giant Wal-Mart. With huge truckloads of supplies being sent to Qualcomm Stadium, Wal-Mart volunteered logistical staff to unload and distribute goods.

“Wal-Mart is good at supply-chain issues,” said David Henry, the company’s emergency preparedness and planning manager. “We get the right product to the right place at the right time.”

The company has an emergency management department with positions that mirror those in public-sector emergency management hierarchies. It also has a 40-seat Emergency Operations Center (EOC). “We have subject-matter experts focused on potential disruptions, such as interstate closures or snowstorms, every day,” Henry explained. “Our emergency management department is good at rallying those experts in transportation, logistics and store operations, and making sure they have up-to-date situational awareness to make decisions.”

David Raths Contributing Writer

David Raths is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.

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