A New Model for Disaster Response

It is time to move away from a "command and control" approach to a disaster-assistance system that relies instead on a network of partnerships.
by | August 16, 2006
 

As I write, we are in the midst of hurricane season and have seen massive wildfires in the West. And, despite the considerable analysis and discussion that occurred following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we are still operating from basically the same playbook in our approach to emergencies -- a "command and control" approach.

Consider the possibilities of a disaster-assistance system that relies instead on a network of partnerships among cities and counties, supported by a sophisticated database of human and material resources for emergency response and recovery. Consider, too, changes in the intergovernmental system that allow officials to cut through bureaucracies to get help into affected areas more quickly.

In such a model, assets could be identified and local government response teams could be certified, trained and deployed for all four phases of a disaster -- preparation, response, recovery and restoration. The system would have multi-disciplinary teams with a full range of local-government expertise, not just police and fire personnel as first responders. The states' Emergency Management Assistance Compact would be involved in developing the pre-certification criteria, and the local-government personnel would be certified to respond across state lines in specific functional areas, such as information technology, utilities, code enforcement, public works, finance and accounting, housing, EMS, police and fire, and other essential operations.

In addition to a comprehensive database of human and physical assets -- from the public, private and nonprofit sectors -- available for rapid deployment, the system should include a geo-mapping tool to identify, select, activate, track and manage response assets. Equipment and materials not in use would be stored in accessible locations, such as available military base facilities, which are well suited for this function. The network of relationships would need to include the military officials who have been tasked with support to local governments in disaster situations.

All too frequently, the initial outpouring of support after a disaster is not sustained. But, look at how many local governments found ways to get help into communities affected by Hurricane Katrina through their personal relationships with individuals. Some regional teams provided recovery assistance for more than three months by rotating personnel and establishing clear management protocols. In this way, they were able to retain essential capabilities in their own regions while providing long-term assistance in another state. The regional teams included several cities and counties that had trained together and supported each other in earlier disaster recoveries.

This networked approach makes available pre-certified local government professionals who can be deployed as individuals and/or teams to provide assistance in addressing the steps necessary for recovery. Elements of a recovery process would typically include restoring basic community services, identifying long-term housing solutions, coordinating with federal, state, and regional organizations, finding and managing public and private aid, and recruiting and managing volunteer networks. Recovery assistance from an individual local government would be provided on a relatively short-term basis, such as a six- to 12-week period, rotating teams and individuals as necessary.

Restoration can take place over a period of years. It works best when communities that need ongoing, long-term support and technical assistance are matched with local governments able to provide such assistance. The assistance may include redevelopment advice and capacity building in areas such as housing, economic development, environmental management and public works. The assistance would be provided over an extended period of time agreed upon by the participating local governments.

Local governments interested in participating would identify the technical areas in which they are willing to provide pro bono assistance, and this information would be maintained in the database for easy identification and retrieval. Reimbursable expenses would be limited to materials, equipment, and other non-labor costs. By way of example, with financial support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the International City/County Management Association has been able to deploy local government teams to provide restoration support to areas in Sri Lanka devastated by the tsunami; there is no comparable system to assist devastated communities in the U.S.

Historically, the U.S. has tried to manage disasters with a "command and control" approach. What is needed now is a dynamic and network-centered approach that has the flexibility to move resources and assets where they need to be, when they need to be there. Working together gives us the greatest hope of not repeating the past.

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