Take Part in Disaster Relief

“An old man on his deathbed summoned his sons to give them some parting advice. He ordered his servants to bring in a bundle of sticks, and said to his eldest son, “Break it.” The son strained and strained, but with all his efforts was unable to break the bundle. The other sons also tried, but none was successful. “Untie the bundle,” said the father, “and each of you take a stick.” When they had done so, he called out to them: “Now, break,” and each stick was easily broken. “You see,” said their father. “Union gives strength.” (Adapted from Aesop's Fables, www.aesops-fables.org.uk).

Perhaps you’re wondering what Aesop has to do with disaster relief work, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) seems to have taken Aesop’s lesson to heart. FEMA recently released a document entitled “A ‘Whole Community’ Approach to Emergency Management.” Foundational to the “whole community” concept is the recognition that all members of a community (emergency management, volunteer organizations, private sector and individual community members) have a role to play in disaster preparedness, response and recovery. No one party in this equation is capable of bearing the full burden of a successful community recovery. (Each individual stick is easily broken.) The collaborative “whole community” approach calls for all groups to "work together to enable communities to develop collective, mutually supporting local capabilities to withstand the potential initial impacts of these events, respond quickly, and recover in a way that sustains or improves the community’s overall wellbeing.” Like the bundle of wood from Aesop’s fable, the whole community is made more resilient by the bundling of resources, information and ideas.

As material handling and logistics professionals we are uniquely qualified to support disaster relief in this “whole community” equation. Our networks are vast due to the relationships we acquire through our supplier/purchaser relationships. We have a broad understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the companies with which we work, and we know organizations capable to assist in emergencies. The expert knowledge we use in our daily job can make a significant difference in disaster response. We or our company may not be able to provide the products or services needed to support disaster response, but we all have personal and professional networks which contain those resources.

The American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN) exists to match resources of the private sector networks with the needs generated following a disaster. The key to unlocking the resources in those networks lies in the early engagement of the private sector in disaster preparedness. To that end, we offer the following suggestions on how you and your company can participate in the “whole community” approach.

• Engage employees from all levels and demographics of your organization in disaster planning. Corporate staff will have a very different view of disaster response than staff at the operational level. Similarly, cultural, gender and socio-economic differences will surface requiring a response that may not be considered if plans are drawn by only a few. Engage all viewpoints to ensure different needs and concerns are addressed.

• Know your emergency management groups. Emergency management structures differ from community to community. Find out who is responsible for emergency management in your area; meet with them and work together to draft response plans that make sense for your business, your employees and your community.

• Volunteer in your community and encourage your business associates to volunteer also. Volunteering with a non-profit in between disasters means that they get to learn more about you and what you can offer. If you volunteer during a disaster, chances are you’ll be put in a role that requires little skill or training. When you sign up in between disasters you have the opportunity to offer your expert knowledge that can improve their operations. Remember, the better they operate, the better prepared they are to aid your community.

• Participate in community and national disaster response exercises. Testing the processes that you develop is the only way to identify gaps. Two important upcoming exercises are the Great Central U.S. ShakeOut on April 28, 2011 and the FEMA National Level Exercise set for May 16 – 20, 2011. To be effective, disaster response requires more than just individual efforts, it requires the work of the “whole community.” Remember the lesson from Aesop: “Union gives strength.”


Kathy Fulton is the director of operations for the American Logistics Aid Network, a non-profit organization focused on engaging the supply chain community to support humanitarian relief. ALAN makes humanitarian relief donation needs visible to the logistics industry and establishes an efficient process for providing the necessary goods and services through its web portal, www.ALANaid.org.

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