All hands are on deck when disaster strikes.
Placing sandbags along a floodplain can divert moving waters from damaging buildings. Arranging bus transportation can streamline mass evacuation measures. And tallying food and clothing supplies can help displaced people regain some of their basic needs.
All this and more fall on the shoulders of emergency management authorities, who need seamless coordination and impeccable timing to effectively reduce disaster impact and save lives.
While it’s no easy feat, the ultimate objective of emergency logistics is to ensure the efficient flow of products, services and aid to affected areas.
To capitalize on emergency preparedness and response, it is helpful to look at innovative methods, technologies, and tools to enhance coordination and cultivate greater resiliency in your communities.
What are the challenges with EM logistics?
According to Ken Letander, Policy, Branding, and Public Engagement Advisor and Emergency Management Coordinator, roles and responsibilities can be a sticking point in EM logistics. When confusion arises from an undefined scope of work, it can signal the start of a flawed emergency preparedness plan.
However, by empowering all stakeholders with clearly assigned tasks and updated contacts, Letander asserts that organizations can raise individual and collective capabilities in disaster reduction efforts and execute actions more efficiently.
Building and maintaining relationships between government, response agencies, First Nations groups, and vulnerable populations require open and consistent communication. But often, when an individual transitions out of a role, Letander expresses no one is there to pick up the pieces.
“This causes a ripple effect, and these resource and communication gaps need to be filled,” he says. “If you’re going to transition out of your role, you need to consider who your audience will consult in your absence. Informing relevant parties of any change in organizational structure is crucial to maintaining good relationships.”
A clear rift between public responses and private partnerships can harm collective preparedness and response efforts. Because public and private agencies tend to operate independently, these parties often fail to come together when it’s in everyone’s best interests.
“There’s a very distinct line in the sand between public responses and private partnerships,” reveals Michael Curtis, President of The Response Team Inc.
He suggests that public and private sector partners should engage in joint emergency planning processes to ensure coordinated decisions across each phase of EM, including preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery.
Curtis acknowledges that these strained relationships can be mended with inter-organizational mandated training and drawing on members’ expertise to incorporate their partners’ risks, vulnerabilities, and capabilities into joint plans. This way, public-private partnerships are less about stepping on each other’s toes and more about how they can walk in tandem.
Transactional vendor partnerships
“The number one resource is always people,” shares Curtis. “Everything else follows because you build relationships with people first.”
In the emergency management sector, it’s not uncommon to make the mistake of maintaining a strictly business attitude, especially when developing contracts between logistics vendors. Instead, we should emphasize nurturing valuable long-term relationships over vendor relations as a transactional requirement or quick sell.
“We want mutually beneficial and translational relationships, not transactional ones,” clarifies Perron Goodyear, the Director of Emergency Disaster Services at The Salvation Army.
How digitization has changed EM logistics for the better
All across the globe, people have realized the possibility of accomplishing work virtually, if not simply out of necessity and survival, then out of sheer competition.
“COVID-19 and the acceleration of tech adoption have proven that we don’t have what we think we have, but we can adapt,” comments Pascal Rodier, Senior Emergency Management, Response and Continuity Leader.
“Brick and mortar organizations may not return to their former physical operations, and this can pose business continuity challenges with preparedness in physical spaces,” he says.
To offset some of the challenges of remote operations, digital solutions such as EMLCanada can simplify logistics and make things more efficient from anywhere you are. Updating vendor lists no longer has to be an administrative burden when you can discover new vendors through a searchable directory.
According to Scott Davis, the Director and Vice President of Readiness and Response at Community Disaster Response Ontario, having a partner portal to update your call list of contractors can significantly reduce time and staff resources which can be strategically placed elsewhere.
“Technology has exceeded what humans can do,” adds Rodier. “When interoperability fails, it’s not the technology. It’s getting the right people to do the right thing at the right time. In the last year with COVID, we’ve seen in-person EOCs transition digitally. While it won’t ever replace the benefits of people coming together in one room and the dialogue that spurs from it, it does inform how the future of leadership could be.”
Mass notification systems have also made communicating with internal teams and the public easier.
“Simplicity is the biggest advantage,” explains Davis. “Getting messages out quickly and simplifying administration actions like pre-populating a script and having the ability to cut and paste particulars is extremely helpful.”
However, it’s important to note that when adopting these systems, you need to be aware of the relationship you have with your audience. According to Tim Riecker, Partner with Emergency Preparedness Solution, there’s often a high spike in the of mass notifications, especially during a significant emergency. But when the event is resolved, communications tend to drop off immediately.
To establish legitimate and trustworthy relationships with receivers, Riecker recommends employing notifications post-disaster too.
“Don’t just tell people that the storm is coming,” he says. “Tell them what to do about it. Share shelter locations and resources where you can find more information. And if you’re four days post-flood–for example–share links and resources to people that may be eligible for assistance. That’s the kind of stuff that’s useful and should be a best practice.”
Ways to optimize EM logistical response before, during, and after an emergency
Before an emergency
The objective of emergency mitigation and preparedness planning is to save lives, reduce risk, and develop coordinated approaches for operational readiness, including ordering and procuring supplies and resources.
Here are 3 ways to boost logistics before an emergency event, recommended by industry leaders:
- Develop relationships in the EM sector ahead of time
- Consider how to resolve incidents with the least amount of impact
- Check your expectations and ask the tough questions about sacrifice
1. Develop relationships in the EM sector ahead of time
“Logistics can’t operate in isolation to get what you need when you need it,” asserts Scott Roberts, President of International Association of Emergency Managers Canada (IAEM).
The dozen industry leaders we spoke with reveal that the critical ingredient to facilitating effective logistics is knowing what resources you have. However, communications and EM professionals don’t typically rub shoulders until after a crisis, which Roberts admits is too late in the game. Instead, he advises bringing everyone to the same table in advance of an emergency.
Curtis shares similar sentiments about partnership in terms of regional relationships . He articulates that connection with other towns within a district can aid emergency response and play a vital role in cross-training and learning each other’s capacities.
“This is what I call ‘servant leadership,’” says Curtis. “It applies to logistics and how you can make life easier as not just a supplier who’s getting a PO signed off, but someone who shares the same goals you do.”
By wielding the power, resources, and support from external stakeholders and vendors, mutual assistance agreements ensure the proper services and facilities are secured in time when you need them the most. As the EM industry adopts more innovative technology, these resources can now be accessed through digital information portals.
Roberts argues that setting up contracts and retainers with supply companies in advance can reduce hardship for many people and work faster towards keeping people safe.
“People have to work together before the big bad thing happens, even if that means forcing a relationship between emergency managers and government, or responders and industry partners when they don’t get along,” admits Rodier. “Because logistics is about understanding how to support your people and get back to normal as smoothly as possible, and that requires the effort of everyone.”
2. Consider how to resolve incidents with the least amount of impact
“No one wants to pay for what might not happen versus what they know they need to use,” shares Rodier.
However, emergency logistics must be taken into account in the preparedness stage to help overcome conflict when an incident does occur. According to Davis, shortening the length of the event timeline mitigates the adverse effects on people, property, and the environment.
Here is a checklist of standard logistics questions to evaluate:
3. Check your expectations and ask the tough questions about sacrifice
Emergency preparedness plans can still fail after decades of experience, countless hours of training, and hundreds of thousands of investment dollars.
The possibility of something going wrong never goes away because there’s always an element of the unknown that you can’t possibly predict. So as much foresight as EM authorities wield, they are still capable of erring.
For instance, in 2016, the town of Fort MacMurray experienced devastating wildfires that resulted in the largest evacuation in Canadian history, displacing nearly 90,000 residents over four days.
Darby Allen, a fire chief in Fort MacMurray at the time (but now retired), knows first-hand about operational readiness not going quite as expected.
“You have to ask the hard questions, like ‘are you prepared to stay and do your job while you watch your family drive out of town?’” remarks Allen.
“It’s certainly not something anyone thought about during the Fort Mac fires. What I’m suggesting for EM professionals is to at least have the conversation. It doesn’t matter if you designate people’s roles by title or name,” he explains.
“You need to chat with them about what they would do in this situation because they’re no good to you there if their heart isn’t in it. The bottom line is to find people who are willing to stay in town during arduous circumstances and are willing to give up seeing their family for a couple months because realistically, that may happen,” says Allen.
Allen recalls seeing endless traffic of cars idling bumper to bumper, with passengers patiently but fearfully waiting to evacuate their inflamed homes for an indefinite amount of time.
“It was a terrifying situation, but we didn’t have people getting out of their cars or giving us any push-back,” he says. “Instead, they followed our directions, helped each other, and cooperated in a total town evacuation. Looking back, it just goes to show how much trust they instilled in us.”
During an emergency
According to Curtis, this stage is the toughest of the three. “More often than not, communities are still wrapping their heads around what is happening,” he says.
So to achieve a favourable outcome, emergency efforts need to be applied to coordinate the procurement, access, and distribution of resources as quickly as possible.
Prioritize human and physical resources
“From traffic management and where people go to get help to where they should evacuate, communications need to be abundantly clear,” explains Curtis.
From a logistics standpoint, he emphasizes that the priority during an emergency should be placed on human and physical resources in order to prevent fatalities and injuries, reduce damage to buildings, and protect the environment and broader community.
“At this point, it’s about more than just ordering resources and equipment,” states Curtis. “Where are people going to stay? Where will we get enough food for them to eat? How can we communicate with them? And how can we ensure affected people receive medical attention?”
This stage is where you lean heavily on the relationships you’ve cultivated in the EM sector to meet the immediate needs of affected people.
In addition, Davis advises people to respectfully stay in their lane. Whether you’re responsible for running the incident management system and procuring resources or a first responder, you have to focus on what your responsibilities are.
“If a fire chief is involved in a downtown metropolitan centre, they should focus on the operations of how to put out the fire,” says Davis. “That person should not be thinking about needing 25 roadblocks to seal off public traffic–that’s the logistics manager’s job.”
Among working with the resources you have, Davis advises administering creativity to your response. “A logistics person needs to use traditional solutions such as implementing sawhorses at the end of the affected roads. But sometimes, they’ll have to think outside of the box too,” he says. “Like using a snowplough to block off traffic instead.”
Refine your information management
“Those managing the communications are just as important as frontline workers,” voices Curtis. “Not having enough resources and communication failure are always some of the lessons you learn.”
Next to providing aid resources during an emergency, it’s equally important to communicate critical public information to increase situational awareness, mitigate harm, and inform sound decision-making. Curtis asserts that constant and consistent messaging can help reduce public confusion and panic.
Here are three communication touchpoints to address during an emergency, advised by the industry leaders we spoke with:
“This is where we discuss how we can build back better and make sure that when a crisis event happens again–which it will–that we’re better prepared and don’t make the same mistakes twice,” says Curtis.
Part of learning from mistakes is doing things differently. Letander similarly stresses contemplating whether it makes sense to rebuild structures the same way if the results do not change. He urges industry professionals to critically consider these implications post-disaster as part of their debrief and immediate future implementation.
According to Curtis, the recovery phase includes assessing damage to structures, restoring services and facilities as quickly as possible, and re-evaluating resources and relationships so that they can be reinforced in the future.
A lifetime of logistics lessons to borrow
One disaster can shape a community forever, and there’s no shortage of case studies to look at as the rate of disasters and emergencies increases year over year. That’s why the emergency management sector is so important.
It takes a village to mitigate, respond to, and recover from an emergency or crisis. And to continue making strides in our industry so that our communities can depend on us through thick and thin, it is essential to leverage networks, best practices, and past lessons to inform future emergency logistics.
Adopting innovative new technology will drastically change how logistics is performed across Canada’s emergency management sector. A common vision for the identification and sharing of information and resources will create a more resilient community.
SPECIAL THANKS TO OUR INDUSTRY EXPERTS FEATURED IN THIS ARTICLE
Michael Curtis, President, The Response Team
Scott Davis, Director and Vice President, Readiness and Response at Community Disaster Response Ontario
Perron Goodyear, Director, Emergency Disaster Services, The Salvation Army
Ben Morgan, Principal & Managing Director, Centre for Crisis and Risk Communications
Pascal Rodier, Senior Emergency Management, Response and Continuity Leader, Mentor, Educator, and Consultant.
Darby Allen, Retired Fire Chief & Public Speaker
Tim Riecker, Partner, Emergency Preparedness Solutions
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EMLCanada offers a searchable online platform (EMLCanada.ca) to support connection within Canada’s emergency management sector and improve efficiency in locating products and services needed to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disaster situations. Using the simple principle that organizations and vendors can create and maintain their own current information online, the sector can eliminate the traditional time-consuming, inefficient, and redundant process of updating contact lists. Learn More.