Can Supply Chain Management Improve Disaster Response?

Meeting the needs of large-scale disasters requires more than just a purchasing agent.

by Lucien G. Canton / July 11, 2014

One of the areas of emergency response that we seem to have problems with is that of logistics. This is understandable because many jurisdictions really don’t deal in logistics; they deal in purchasing. That is, we locate vendors and the responsibility for transporting, warehousing and in some cases, distributing the resulting resources lies with them. For this reason, most emergency plans designate the purchaser as head of the logistics section.

However, as we scale both the magnitude of the disaster and the level of response, we find the need for true logistics management increasing. Logistics management plans, implements and controls the flow and storage of goods and services between the point of origin and the point of consumption. Purchasing is only part of this process.

In the March/April issue of the Journal of Emergency Management, researchers Richard Young and Matthew Peterson suggest that we need to take this even further. In an article, titled Emergency management logistics must become emergency supply chain management, they argue the need for developing an integrated and scalable supply system to support large-scale disaster operations. Supply chain management integrates supply and demand management within and across suppliers. As purchasing is part of logistics management, so logistics management is part of the larger world of supply chain management. The critical difference is that supply chain management involves a much broader range of actors and requires close coordination.

Young and Peterson identify five crucial differences that distinguish emergency supply change management from its commercial counterpart:

  1. The unpredictability of demand;
  2. Suddenness of occurrence and short lead times;
  3. The need for timely delivery to mitigate human suffering;
  4. Damage to the logistics infrastructure caused by the disaster; and
  5. A lack of resources to implement such a system (trained personnel, technology, transportation capacity, etc.).

As a start to the development of an emergency supply chain system, Young and Peterson applied the Supply Chain Council’s Supply Chain Operations Reference model to after-action reports from various disasters. This enabled them to identify a series of best practices that could be applied by emergency managers:

  1. Plan/enable – develop overall plans to operate an emergency management supply chain.
  2. Source – plan and execute the procurement and receipt of emergency materials and services.
  3. Make – plan and execute the conversion of material into emergency responder and survivor support kits.
  4. Deliver – plan and execute the receiving, scheduling, picking, packing and shipping of orders for life-saving and life-sustaining material and equipment.
  5. Return – plan and execute demobilization.

Creating an emergency supply chain system clearly is something that will need to be accomplished at the national level. However, the concept provides food for thought and the best practices defined by Young and Peterson could be applied at any level. Thinking in terms of supply chains forces us to consider the larger issues involved in providing goods and services following a disaster and moves us beyond simple purchasing.