Retail to the Rescue

Business is a largely untapped source of help for disaster planning and response.

It was the largest preparedness exercise of its kind. The first TOPOFF in May 2000 simulated simultaneous chemical, biological and radiological attacks in three cities. Thousands of personnel from 18 federal agencies and various state and local government entities took part in the exercise, whose name stands for Top Officials. Honchos included the U.S. attorney general, the secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, and the directors of the FBI and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The three-day event planned by the Justice Department simulated a radiological bomb detonation at a faux softball game in Washington, a mustard gas attack causing hundreds of mock casualties in Portsmouth, N.H., and a pneumonic plague outbreak in Denver that flooded emergency rooms and caused city officials to implement a quarantine.

But can you guess what was missing? The private sector. In the universe hit by the fictional terrorists, the business community did not exist. That would be the business community that owns about 85 percent of the nation's critical infrastructure.

In the three subsequent TOPOFF simulations in 2003, 2005 and 2006, the private sector has become increasingly involved, and with good reason: Businesses can be quite helpful to governments during disasters. Wal-Mart sent 1,900 truckloads of water and other supplies to the Gulf Coast immediately after Hurricane Katrina; Johnson Controls of Milwaukee, Wis., purchased recreational vehicles and shipped them to the Gulf Coast to provide their employees with temporary housing; and Home Depot has contributed more than $81 million in reconstruction funds. Many other firms donated money and supplies.

Business representatives say other kinds of support are easily imaginable, too. Some firms have cutting and heavy lifting equipment to help with search and rescue; other large companies have decontamination teams. Wal-Mart even has its own emergency operations center, which dispatched situational reports every few hours during Katrina, based on information that was coming in from stores armed with satellite phones. Systems such as Wal-Mart's, used regularly for supply chain management, can be useful in managing the logistics of delivering supplies from a stockpile to a disaster area.

"Honestly, the private sector makes its decisions and executes them much, much faster than the department and any other governmental entity does," says Richard B. Cooper, business liaison director for the Homeland Security Department's Private Sector Office. Cooper says the office works as a window between the department and business, with part of its objective to make DHS leaders aware of industry capabilities.

Some say the department has much more work to do.

A March report from the Council on Foreign Relations concluded that the National Response Plan-the federal blueprint for managing disasters-and other planning initiatives have not integrated the private sector adequately, preparedness exercises such as TOPOFF being the most "glaring example."

"While the NRP recognizes the importance of the private sector, the approach to engaging companies before and after catastrophes is ad hoc," the report says.

Most companies find the government-multiple departments and agencies, in many cases-overly bureaucratic and difficult to deal with, according to the report, so without advanced planning, many of the private sector's resources remain untapped.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is working with businesses and DHS to create a formal structure in which government leaders and large private sector entities can work together on disaster preparedness and response, says Andrew Howell, vice president of the chamber's homeland security policy division.

Howell, who says he received his invitation to the first TOPOFF-as an observer-little more than a week ahead of time, sees progress at the federal level. The hundreds of businesses that took part in the most recent TOPOFF in June, "derived benefit from being involved, because they better understood how the government would react and therefore could most appropriately react themselves," he says.

He sees a larger problem at the state level. DHS does not require state homeland security directors to talk to energy companies, telecommunication companies or other critical infrastructure owners and private sector groups before submitting annual homeland security strategies-plans designed to assess vulnerabilities and response capabilities.

"It's a little bit hard to see how a state or a municipality really could create an effective grant proposal on homeland security that doesn't involve the private sector, principally the critical infrastructure owners and operators, from the get-go," he says. "We don't see anyone connecting the dots. We don't see states doing it. We don't see DHS urgently working this problem."

The Washington-based Business Executives for National Security began working on the problem three years ago. The result is the widely lauded Business Force, a partnership in which companies pledge trucks, warehouses and other resources before a disaster, based on needs pre-identified by state officials. The organization has programs in New Jersey, Georgia, California and the Midwest, and will release a report of recommendations requested by Capitol Hill in September.

The key to the Business Force might be clear direction from the government. This was one of the conclusions that surprised some government leaders at a pandemic flu simulation in March. The private sector looked to the federal government for guidance on everything from difficult bioethical decisions to the potential nationalization of the food supply, according to exercise organizers Booz Allen Hamilton and the Center for Health Transformation in Washington, part of the Gingrich Group founded by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

"Government officials fear that the private sector will resist anything that seems intrusive or heavy-handed," says Robert Egge, the center's project director for health preparedness and homeland security. "While that may be true in most contexts, it's not true with emergency planning."

DHS' Cooper agrees that government employees' "knowledge gap" about private sector capabilities and needs is "very steep," though he says it's improving dramatically. During Katrina, he says, the situational reports from Wal-Mart were so good that he distributed them to department officials.

"This is a culture change to engage the private sector in a security relationship," Cooper says. "When you're dealing with government cultures that have not regularly engaged the private sector, it's a push."

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