Every organization, regardless of whether it’s in the public or private sector, has its forward-leaning parts. In those parts of the organization, they often operate with three key factors in their operational culture – they foster an open dialogue with multiple parties; they willingly engage the public; and have operational transparency.  But then there are those parts of an organization that you’re not really quite sure what they are up to.  Such is the case with two important, but equally vital parts of the ‘new’ FEMA – its National Preparedness Directorate and its Logistics Management Directorate.

On Monday, May 19th, FEMA’s Preparedness Directorate, along with other DHS components and other partners hosted a Stakeholder Forum to discuss the National Response Framework (NRF) at the National Headquarters of the American Red Cross.  Issued earlier this year, the NRF outlines how we will respond to ‘events’ and the respective roles that public and private sectors will play.  With a broad cross section of attendees, the Forum worked to improve the understanding and engagement that is necessary if the ‘framework’ is to be operationally successful.

It was one more example of the ‘proactive’ manner that the Preparedness Directorate has taken since gaining ownership of the NRF some months ago.  When the initial NRF version was released for comment in late 2007, it was greeted with a resounding ‘thumbs down.’  State, local, tribal and private sector officials charged that their previously offered thoughts and inputs had been ignored and after sending DHS and FEMA over 5,000+ comments to the draft NRF document, their voices were heard loud and clear.  The result was a better document, but more importantly a document that FEMA’s partners (other public and private sector members) felt they had buy-in.

Since the incorporation of their feedback, FEMA, and in particular the Preparedness Directorate, has utilized as many possible opportunities to be pro-active and forward leaning in sharing the Framework.  As a result, they are building credibility for the NRF, the process it lays out and the various people who must work in concert to make it all work when it is most important.

It’s a shame that the same forward leaning, pro-active behavior has not been adopted by its fellow FEMA component, the Logistics Management Directorate.  It’s an understatement to say that Hurricane Katrina and the storms that followed in 2005 revealed gaping holes in FEMA’s logistical capacities.  Following those storms and buttressed by Administration and Congressional reforms, the Agency amended its organizational chart and established a single focused unit dedicated to logistics that reports directly to the Administrator; they hired a logistics experienced Career-SES to lead the Directorate; they brought onboard a loaned-Executive from UPS to work with the Logistics Team; and established key relationships with Defense Logistics Agency and others to provide additional logistical support to its operations.

While the Agency’s response to recent smaller scale disasters has demonstrated significant improvement to its Logistics operations, there remains significant disconnects between the Logistics Directorate in its engagement with the public and private sectors who have a serious stake and interest in making the process work better for everyone.  No where was this disconnect more evident than when the Director of New York City’s Office of Emergency Management stated at a recent joint FEMA-GSA Logistics meeting that NYC was taking care of its own logistics needs and would not seek FEMA’s assistance in this area.

Offers and overtures by some of the country’s most experienced logistics firms have either been ignored or entirely blown off.  If a meeting does occur with the FEMA Logistics Team during one of their ‘Industry Days,’ it is usually staffed by junior level personnel (mostly contractors), who take notes, nod their heads at appointed times, collect the presentation charts and materials and offer in their best government-ese, “Thanks. Someone will get back to you,” and then never hear from them again.

Additionally, where the Preparedness Directorate has made themselves available for dialogue, interaction and public engagement on the issues in which they are involved, the relative radio silence of the Logistics team has been cause for growing concern and frustration for those offering prospective solutions that could offer a significant difference.

On those occasions where the Logistics Directorate leaders have been available at conferences or other meetings, the lack of any real information being communicated is even more frustrating. So is the fact that a number of its mid to senior-level personnel will not even share their business cards, phone numbers or email addresses to allow for any type of direct ollow-up.

This is not any way to build confidence in a part of the Agency that desperately needs to function well, especially when so much depends on it.

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind of the challenges associated with moving food, water and other materials to disaster locations at a moment’s notice to serve immediate and often desperate needs.  Nor is there argument about the complexities of modeling the requirements or preparing for the various threat scenarios.  I’m fairly certain that wrestling a rabid 900 pound gorilla in a cage has to be easier than operating FEMA Logistics, but if we are to have any semblance of confidence in this key Agency operation, we need to have an open dialogue, active public engagement and operational transparency that presently do not exist.

Those three elements are what helped improve the National Response Framework and have enabled it to form the stakeholder base that will allow the plan to be operational and effective.  The same should hold true for Logistics. Nearly three years after Katrina, we deserve to have that kind of operation in place.

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More