Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 18, 2010

Crisis Distribution: What Homeland Security Can Learn From McDonald’s

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Christopher Bellavita on February 18, 2010

In yesterday’s post, Mark Chubb offered a conceptual perspective about managing the nation’s affairs, especially with respect to disaster response.

The author of today’s post, Daniel W. O’Connor, comments on a similar theme.

Dan has spent 25 years doing and thinking about response.  The views in this post are his own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency.


What must emergency planners and disaster consultants learn from tragedies like the  2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti?  What happens if a  7.0 earthquake hits San Francisco, a 5.0 hurricane rolls up through the East Coast,  or a nuclear weapon is detonated in New York or Washington?

Response and recovery will always lag if it’s linear and single-purpose. That only leads to delayed response, logistical crises, and more death and chaos. Unfortunately, the response and recovery abilities of many Homeland Security functions are rarely tested outside of ‘gamed’ and/or artificial exercises.

There has to be a more efficient way, and perhaps there is.

In planning parlance, the more efficient way is called a networked or multiple node strategy.  We see it in everything from computers, to the placement of cellular phone towers, to fast-food restaurants. That is why I call it the “McDonald’s Solution.”

Simply put, each of McDonald’s 47,000+ restaurants in the U.S.  has 95% of the same offerings, menus, capabilities, and so on. But they also have a built-in surge capacity. So if one outlet runs out of hamburger patties, there’s no need to go back to the long logistic chain for more.  The local McDonald’s network simply flexes to meet the new need, and then adjusts its logistics later. Yes, the company’s highly sophisticated user data tells the store what its expected volume will be. But planning is never reality, and if there’s a disruption, a leak, a parade marching by, the node reaches out to another node and voila: a networked response.

What happens in a real disaster is more consequential than missing two-all-beef-patties. But the strategy offers valuable lessons, particularly for shapers of disaster planning plans and procedures.

The conventional response in the face of natural or man-made disaster is to try and establish command and control as the first critical node of action.  This way of responding is both trained and, over time, instinctive.

However, I  believe we should move to offering multiple and near simultaneous small nodes of support built initially on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, moving from physiological (food and shelter and safety) to social needs. So rather than having the entire Haitian emergency response run out of the Port Au Prince Airport, creating huge bottlenecks and deadly delays in getting to the 9 million dispossessed Haitians in life-saving time, we might consider a different and much more effective approach.

Imagine dropping in a security team to secure an area, then establish a secure site for other teams to quickly follow. These teams would be made up of people who can provide a menu of needs: Security, doctors, nurses, engineers, food, and water specialists, aid workers and a host of other providers, shaped by the secondary assessment — a crisis triage team. The teams would be inserted by OSPREYS,  followed by other forms of air transport getting aid packages on the ground quickly.

Like McDonald’s and for that matter any commercial service with analogous logistic needs, these teams would have a pre-packaged ‘product.’ They would be linked in a non-linear way and have the capacity to help each other without diminishing the team or the network. The result, I believe, would not just be a much faster and more effective response in saving lives, but would also begin creating social order and reconstructing buildings, communities and families. The threat of mob dynamics would be considerably diminished as well.

What’s more, by letting each node with its own decentralized leadership get help to affected areas simultaneously, the need for a morass of linear logistics also dissipates. Then, as each node stands up, the command element of the response can adjust and shape its command and control function based on the nodes and not on geography.

Conceptually, it would be like combining a capability like the Marine Expeditionary Unit or a Special Forces Unit with a team of aid workers and communicators. Indeed, in the past century, these smaller units have played a growing role as governments discovered their objectives can sometimes be achieved faster and better by a small team of highly-trained specialists than a larger and more politically controversial conventional deployment.


Watching Haiti, it’s clear that the traditional command-and-control approach is almost exclusively linear and doomed to built-in inefficiencies that will cost billions in terms of lives, time, and opportunities. Having a single node of operation implies that if that node fails, the entire operation is doomed. In other words, rigid plans and onerous hierarchy can lead to worsening the initial crisis, which we saw in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

The best way to avoid an extended crisis is to move from it; vacate the crisis. The response to the earthquake in Haiti failed to make its primary consideration the essence of all triaging: getting help immediately to the neediest.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

February 18, 2010 @ 2:15 pm

Mr. O’Connor has give HLSWatch.com a really great post. One note is that Logistics underpins much of his analysis. One of the weakest areas of FEMA/DHS. Why?

OMB refused to allow FEMA when independent to develop and fund adquate logistics systems. Why? OMB is the leading deterrant to adequate preparedness in the UNITED STATES. Why? Ego and hubris and ignorance! They always hope it will NOT happen on their watch. And guess what it always does.

Thanks again for the great post. It would be of interest to see if any US Governor thinks in terms of logistics for response and plans to surge to deal with problems outside their own state? I think not and shows this is not just not a building block system but a hoping for the best and let the feds do it system. So can the feds do it? Not currently IMO. But seeds have been planted over OMB’s strenous objections.

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

February 18, 2010 @ 4:25 pm

I am baffled. Not knowing much about operations at McDonalds, it is not clear to me from the posting how they handle a surge in demand for hamburger patties.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 19, 2010 @ 12:38 am

I decided time has come to note for the record on the record that Haitian Relief efforts are failing from almost any subjective or quantitative standards. Brookings held or is going to hold meeting on should UN Protectorate status occur for Haiti. The sooner the better because there is in reality as we approach week six no real evidence of the Haitian government being able to do what is necessary to provide housing, health care, food and medical assistance to its population. The fiction that a Haitian nation-state exists is gone and now only exploitation of a massive human tradgey is going to occurh each passing day and week. IMO of course.

Comment by christopher tingus

February 19, 2010 @ 8:31 am

Breaking nGreed and corruption rampant in Haiti…This news from a successful business group initially willing to engage in relief supplies and yesterday advising me they have pulled out – the payoffs are not worth it –

From my perspective even given numerous government and other circles to collaborate in getting thousands of presently available portable units of water purification systems and eco-friendly, earthquake resistent, with solar and rainwater retention system, easily erected 200 sq. ft houses w/ (75) manufactured units placed in 40′ foot container for delivery as a permanent solution fror Hait’s housing, the same units we are shipping throughout Africa and guess what…not one relief organization, the UN, USAID or anuone else has moved in the direction of taking advantage of assuring folks that precious rainwater is captured and utilized or for the immediate, thousands and thousands of these portable water purification units secured and distributed…

Another comment, I heard that Haiti may cost upwards of $14 billion and a gentleman talked about the substantial monies, well..I heard little from fols when Boston’s “Big Dig” the makeover of seven miles of Boston’s downtown roadways cost in excess of $16 billion dollars….seven miles and a State government and Department of Revenue failing to pursue the fraud in monies right here in downtown Boston with Kerry and Kennedy and of course, our pal, Barney Frank all turning their cheek as $16+billion spent, misspent and seven deaths thus far related to the shoddy construction and politics….

The greed and corruption is rampant, the ineptness, the void in leadership and you, Mr. President from continued unemployment figures released yesterday and the partisan mannerisms of the “good ‘ol belteay boys” – it is evident here on Main Street USA that despite all the rhetoric and stroking of egos, our bankrupt nation, our beloved United States of America, beacon of hopes for so, so many, our young and precious that have served in our military for generations, who have given their lives often tortured prior, we have failed miserably!

This greed and corruption in Haiti thwarting genuine efforts to bring a clean glass of water to fellow human, the greed and corruption pervading so many cultures and governments does not bode well, does it?

God created each of us and afforded the simple rules to an abundant Life….Today is a new day and seeing and hearing all the wrongful ways of those supposedly committed to public service – well, trem limits, no longer politics as a profession – from local, to state to you Mr. President who has failed in your watch of the day as you ave accomplished little in your first year and your promises broken …. Instead of being on television and in the media all day, stay in your office and figure out how to develop a working relationship on both sides of the aisles – the two party system has become one – pompous, greedy and corrupted in your ways.

As far as a catastrophic event here in good ‘ol USA, a memory to many, we see the beltway locked in time, unable to function and no one willing to stand and take the reigns and demand accountability and transparency…Too much to expose – too many devious ways by those willing to pursue dastardly deeds in serving personal agenda…

I find it fascinating that the good citizen and his Rights are being intentionally overlooked by State officials especially here in Taxachusetts.

we have seen Katrina, we now see Haiti, we are quite enlightended despite what the politicians think of us, looking downwards when addressing us, those of us here on main Street USA who “entrusted” these men and women from local, state and federal who promise much in their substantial monies in czmpaign coffers and deliver little other than what is in their interests….

each community’s schools should be stocked with meals ready to eat, a comprehensive local preparedness should be intact, for other than our esteemed police, firefighters and EMT’s here in a moment’s notice – of course this dependent on local monies available to them to sustain the minimum required in local response – we have so much mistrust of local, state and you barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi et al, that to out disbelief, today, we are aware of the handicap of government and we know that we must fend for ourselves….despite the tax dollars and your pledge with hand on heart and Bible Mr. President to assure that folks there in the beltway and here at the MA/DOR to not abuse individuals and circumvent individual Rights and the due process….

We are in great peril – watch the financial markets in the next weeks and months ahead…God Bless us all even a catastrophic event occurs even from the natural as tne gridlock from local, to state to lawmakers everywhere, well, thank God we have the DoD and folks at the NSA watching over us for the political system and those engaged in such self-agenda, your dysfunctions are too numerous and your vices many…We are forming neighborhood watches and formulating programs whereby street by street, neighborhood by neighborhhood, we are beginning to understand that during any such calamity, it will be one another we must rely on and our personal respective resources and of another are who we can really count on for Washington and the special interest groups care little whether I have ready thousands and thousands of water portable water purification systems available now to help Haiti or that small, eco-friendly manufactured 200 sq. ft. housing units, earthquake resistent, shipped (75) per 40’ container can surely help those sleeping under the stars, fearful of the next trauma –

What a shame as I say my prayer in sincere appreciation to all the men (and woemen) who served the military to afford me the Rights and the honor to be an American! The men who died on the beaches, the islands, mistreated ever so by the sword of the Asian, the ruthlessness of the blue-eyed, blond German who has little respect for Life and a Germany despite World War II agreements reviving itself for the last time with shiny new naval vessels, a fast deployment army with even some of its troops engaging in training exercises here, a Germany leading the EU, an EU seeking to become the Middle East power broker as it needs “oil” to lubricate the wheels of its substantial manufacturing prowess, a political movement which with the Blessings of the Vatican will indeed dupe the world once again – an EU composition soon to be compacted into ten nations leaving many to fend for themselves –

“Oh, where oh where is Winson Churchill these days” I ask for he spoke and many scoffed, however he understood that leadership required yes, compassion and tolerance, however firmness in hand, statements and actions that were serious in intent and would be followd through to the letter – much like parenting, loving, compassionate, yet firm in directive, however I cannot be too harsh towards those entrusted to serve public good today, for they are so evidently self-serving and lusting for power that even though we, the bluest of all blue here in Taxachusetts, sent clarity in the hugh upeset in taking Uncle Teddy’s seat and giving it to a gentleman who seems to understand what we the people seek in governing, we’ll see what the new Senator from Massachusetts achieves amidst the lion’s den, however truly weak in character and commitment –

God Bless America for we love you so and despite the French and others across the pond that go out tof their way to snub us, their streets will be riddled with terror as cultures clash and I bet our American youth with proud American Flag patch on their arm reaching out to the innocent so abused by the arrogant and ruthless, the “Brutes of Tehran” and the “KGB Putinites” – and ah, the German revival quite apparent and with very clear ambitions –

Be prepared – be vigilant as very little hope remains from what we see in organized response to substantial catastrophe no matter where and the continued printing of fiat dollars and a China questioning our commitment, well look to higher interest rates and a calamity as folks who trusted government to adhere to the US Constitution and State Constiution and the Rights in the Pursuit of Happiness, well we’ve been on the yellow brick road and unless we step into the polling place and set term limits, demand accountability and ask questions such as the preparedness plan set forth by State and Federal government…a civil defense organization prepared and a populace trained – reliability in those serving personal agneda versus the majority good, our “bankrupted” nation in lack of morals and financially, it is not our Grandchildren I worry about, but my own baby-bommers soon to retire with pensions stripped and poised to be taxed and even taxed more with social security at risk as well –

What will the value of the dollar be eight years? Let’s hope there still is a dollar with an esteemed leader such as Washington or Lincoln…we fear that all which has been created with much toil and sacrifice is intentionally and methodically being stripped quickly placing us in third world status – we are far more than that and to those who believe you will achieve your objectives, watch the voting booth as America has awakened to your devious ways and corporate greed as Wall Street will shortly feel the pain as well….

Christopher Tingus
Main Street USA
Harwich, MA 02645 USA

*Maybe we should start a third political party, the “Main Street USA” party designation as the tea bags sent to Washington are obviously just not enough – they just do not get it nor does the MA/DOR as an agency who sees itself as “unique” and above the due process of law as does the Massachusetts State Legislature, the same body of government which turned its cheek to the corruption and shoddy construction of the $16Billion “Big Dig” project – a seven mile makeover of Boston’s downtown roadways – all so obvious, so blatant….-

Comment by John Galt

February 19, 2010 @ 9:21 am

Perhaps a cliche; amateurs talk tactics, professionals; logistics… I thought this was a refreshingly creative coalescence of both. Using the anology of McDonalds, while a bit obtuse, makes a clear and good explanation of nodes and networked response. Business logistics make excellent case studies and modeling platforms primarily because in order to succeed, they must be effecient. There is something substantive here and is an excellent model of a distributive operation. I do not believe this was a referendum on Haiti per se, but perhaps the most recent crisis to demonstrate that heirarchial, linear response is at a transition point and maybe too slow and antiquated, in terms of speed and deliverability. Pretty good thinker, nonetheless.

Comment by morgan

August 31, 2010 @ 1:46 am

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