Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 4, 2011

Tic toc, tic toc, time’s a-wasting, where’s your BOC?

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,State and Local HLS — by Philip J. Palin on November 4, 2011

In a soon-to-be-published paper a multinational academic team that was in Japan at the time of the earthquake-and-tsunami credits “a handful of trucking/distribution companies” for saving thousands of lives.  “Without their timely intervention, the situation in Tohoku would have taken the path of Haiti, where the lack of help from the local business class contributed to a crisis of huge proportions.”

Pause over this finding for just a moment: Without action by five or six key players in the supply chain, a major swath of the third largest economy in the world would have “taken the path of Haiti.”

The academic specialists in transportation, urban management, and civil engineering conclude the Japanese firms took the initiative because they “were in a position to know that the private sector supply chains had been severely disrupted, and that that the public sector was not ready to fill the gap.” (my italics)

Based on my own observations, in the first week after the earthquake-and-tsunami the Japanese government was not fully aware of its incapacity to fill the gap.  During the first five to six days, the government’s perimeter control was actually suppressing supply chain resilience.  A first step in restoring essential services to survivors was persuading the government they were incapable of doing so and to get out of the way.

This week Tesco,  the British — but international — grocery opened a new distribution center in Bangkok supplementing two existing DCs that have been impacted by the massive and ongoing floods.  This new site will focus on necessities such as water, instant noodles, and canned fish, importing these and other commodities from Malaysia, Vietnam, China, and elsewhere.   Since the flooding began Tesco has increased its distribution capacity in Thailand by about 40 percent.

Friends in Thailand complain the government’s response to the epic flooding has been totally incompetent.  A Bangkok expat who happened to be Japan during the earthquake-and-tsunami adds, “But the incompetence is so complete the government at least does not get in the way.”

Last week I was in a meeting with a senior officer of a major US food distribution company.   He shared one story after another from the Northridge earthquake, to wildfires in Southern California, to Katrina and more where grocery wholesalers and retailers were ready with product and transport, but were kept away… just as in Japan.

A factoid: the tonnage of food shipped into the typical US metropolitan census area each week exceeds what the US military shipped into Afghanistan during the first year of the war.  The US military’s effort is considered a marvel of modern logistics.  But even the US military does not have the logistics capability to fill the food, pharma, and other essential needs of a major urban area in case of a catastrophe.

Recognizing the challenge there are increasing efforts to facilitate private-public collaboration in advance of a catastrophe.  The FEMA Private Sector Office is hosting meetings, brokering relationships and pushing each state to establish effective public-private partnerships.  So far twenty-two states are in the process of doing so.

Over the last few years several cities (such as Los Angeles)  regions (such as the Bay Area) or states (such as New Jersey) have established Business Operations Centers (BOCs) or Business Emergency Operations Centers (BEOCs) or even Virtual Business Operations Center (VBOCs) to facilitate collaboration during emergencies, disasters, and catastrophes.

In some places a BOC is little more than some business seats in the government’s  Emergency Operations Center.  Several BOCs involve exchanging information and  facilitating resource management. Only a few seem to include common risk assessments, joint training and private-public exercises.

Yesterday (and continuing today) I am at a national conference focusing on the private-public interface in emergencies and establishing BOCs.  Some fly-on-the-wall impressions:

  • Lots of good will all around, reflecting a very practical sense of private-public mutual dependence.
  • Everyone recognizes that personal trust-building is essential and — given American mobility — not entirely sufficient.
  • The common value proposition seems to be information sharing for situational awareness and, if possible, situational analysis.
  • Lots of different technological approaches to achieving information sharing, situational awareness, and more.  Reminds me of the online learning market before BlackBoard emerged as the dominant player.  At some point there will be — needs to be — convergence.
  • Most innovative, forward-leaning solutions seem to involve some sort of mediator between public and private sectors, such as an educational institution or a not-for-profit operating as host, active party, or actual entity.  This seems to defuse a variety of legal, political, and perhaps command-and-control issues.
  • There is an implicit expectation by the public sector involved that when push comes to shove they are in charge.  This is unchallenged by private sector because they know when push comes to shove they will do (or not do) what seems best to them at the time.

In many respects it is amazing this kind of explicit and sustained private-public collaboration is such a recent phenomenon.

A leader of one the BOC’s reported that in his major city the private sector has welcomed the invitation to be involved and quickly taken the initiative to be more involved.

“They seem to think disasters are recurring faster and faster and getting bigger and bad-er.  They are trying to get ahead of the wave,” he explained.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

November 4, 2011 @ 3:17 am

A great post. And as business continuity expands its reach and capability yes the private sector can be of much assistance. But and only you Phil have the background in Japanese culture and society as well as the USA to understand the first days and weeks after Fukishima and perhaps you remember my admonition to you to bring that to bear off line with respect to this blog. I was then suggesting the magnitude of the event being far beyond anything being stated perhaps even wreaking eventually cultural change in Japan. And perhaps taking decades not years to deal with.

But what I do know now is that the GOJ and the USA and TEPCO tried their very best to downplay the tradgedy and will wonder always why? The US military imposted an 80 kilometer no go zone almost immediatedly for the US miitary not the 30 or 35 kilometer one the Japanese eventually utilized. I do know very specifically that the GOJ had rejected the offsite emergency planning the US imposed on the nuclear power industry after TMI. And now the NRC is thinking very seriously of expanding the evacuation perimeters around US nuclear facilities. By the way I believe I am correct that North Anna’s two reactors are still of status due to the Mineral, VA earthquake.

And those great lovers of private enterprise the Republicans destroyed the PROJECT IMPACT effort of FEMA Director James Lee Witt that was trying to fully incorporate the private sector into response and recovery. So perhaps ideology and ignorance rule in the USA just as much as the culture of Japan and its government. But Japan is going to pay a very steep price for this event. IN my opinion [IMO] Japan has forfeited its future for the next two decades with its performance public and private in this event. Perhaps its culture was already in the process of doing that demographically and with restrictive immigration practices even before March 11th.

Time will tell. But the private sector does have competencies to bring to the table. So after all this time since our 9/11/01 what is your judgement Phil? Is the USA for its investment in HS not just safer but more open to understanding that event and its consequences or a Hurricane Katrina? Should FEMA be a safety net when the rest of the public sector fails and private sector also and if not should it be? Perhaps a radioactive floating trash pile in the Pacific will be an indicator of how that kind of Black Swan can be handled by the USA.

In my previous comments on Mark Chubb’s posts I have asked for the 2.2 million members of the FIRE SERVICE to do more, not just handle a full box alarm situation. We are all Emergency Managers and the more that can do more, learn more, train more, the more resilient we will be as a nation. Remember the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts? Perhaps they were part of the resilience of the USA. Perhaps a more aggressive better led American Red Cross with almost 200 chapters not just 600 was part of a more resilient American. Perhaps an American polity not just trying to keep their elective office and not worrying about what can be done for the American people was a more resilient American. Perhaps when the banksters were not trying to gouge every last nickle and dime out of their depositors but trying to render community service the USA was a more resilient community? Yes public policies and private policies do make a difference. Perhaps our willingness to allow corruption in our AID and other foreign assistance and those who benefit from that corruption to bring that flight capital to the US for McMansions and POVs and other evidences of Tulip booms we were ending our own financial resilence. And the militarization of the police–does that help our resilience?

Again we all make choices individually and collectively? And time may be running out! Personally with 15 million in S. CA living in an earthquake zone is that too many to think of how a large-scale big one would be handled and planned for? Is the “new” FEMA ready? Are we?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 4, 2011 @ 6:38 am

Bill: You raise questions that deserve more time and thought than I have this morning. But no response would, I think, be worse.

There is persuasive evidence we are better off from suffering the lessons of 9/11 and Katrina and many other events between and since. Many in Congress, at FEMA, in the States and localities, and in the public have tried to pay attention. Many have worked hard to make a difference. There has been real progress.

Is it worth the money and other resources expended? Has there been a defensible ROI? I don’t know. I don’t even know how to articulate the measurable objectives that would support a rigorous return-on-investment analysis.

Are we ready? I would argue that for the worst events we can never be entirely ready. The worst events are ipso facto beyond our ability to fully predict and therefore our preparedness will always be found wanting in some way.

There remain fundamental problems, especially in catastrophe preparedness, with our mindset. We are waaay too inclined to predict-and-protect, rather than adopt the more humble strategy of resilience. I find humility to be realistic. Many others find it fatalistic and even lazy. This is an unresolved matter of policy and strategy that one way or the other increases our risk.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 4, 2011 @ 8:36 am

Thanks Phil. The last sentence in your comment is fully operative. Could it be because policy and strategy are dictated by heirarchy and funding as opposed to other considerations?

I would settle for a real policy debate over who does what best in the federal system. ON that score I have long recommended a Congerssional federalism office that would analyze proposed legislation from a federalism standpoint just as the CBO. And in the Executive Branch a federalism official in each department and agency and also a federalism czar in the WH.

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