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Wal-Mart: America's Best "Bad Day" Friend

I’ve watched with some frustration and amusement the coverage that has unfolded regarding DHS’ announcement earlier this week of working with Wal-Mart as part of its “See Something, Say Something” campaign. From the Drudge Report’s ongoing antagonism (calling Secretary Napolitano “Big Sis”) to talk radio’s snickers about handing out Wal-Mart’s smiley stickers at the airports to accusations of some 1984-esque sinister government-corporate cabal about spying on your neighbors shopping habits, the coverage has been pretty cynical, and that’s really disappointing. The truth is there is probably no better company in America to aid this country’s bad days than the worldwide enterprise headquartered in Bentonville, Arkansas.

I guess that should be expected of a company that occupies the number one position on Fortune Magazine’s rankings of the world’s great businesses. If you’re number one, you’re in that top position for a reason. When you consider all of the multi-billion dollar enterprises that make the world go “ka-ching,” particularly oil/energy companies, software/IT businesses, large manufacturers, and so forth, having a retailer in the top spot says an awful lot about who we are as a people and why having Wal-Mart as a partner is one of the best decisions DHS could make.

As someone who had the fortune of helping establish the relationship between Wal-Mart and DHS in the early days of the department, I can remember full well some of the unflattering looks and comments from people inside and outside of the department when it was mentioned that we should be working with them. “You can’t be serious” was what individual said to me. Another person just laughed.

To these people, unless you were a specifically defined member of a given critical infrastructure area, like an energy, telecommunications, or manufacturing enterprise, there was no way you had any overly critical importance to the country. Such short-sightedness should come as no surprise to us. The “flat-Earth” society always has a full and growing membership list. That’s why I think I have to confess I loved seeing Wal-Mart and other retailers like Target, Home Depot, Lowes, etc. shock them and the world with their performances during the summer 2005.

When Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast and every level of government seemed to collapse under the magnitude of the event, Wal-Mart had food, water, medicine and more in supply and was answering the absolutely dire needs of the communities. I mean no disrespect to the U.S. Coast Guard or the thousands of people and groups around the country who rallied to the Gulf Coast to save the people Katrina and Rita ravaged, but I will go to my grave knowing that Wal-Mart saved more lives in the opening days and weeks of those disasters than probably any other group.

From pre-deployment of critical resources; having back-up communications (satellite phones) and knowing how to use them; a dependable and world-class logistics operations; having the most accurate situation reports of what was occurring in disaster areas; and having personnel that had a plan and were trained to respond accordingly – they performed magnificently.

I saw firsthand how government and military personnel were absolutely dumbfounded at how the place they went to buy socks, groceries and whatever else they may need had completely upended everyone and could perform when no one else could. Seeing their shock only validated what I and others knew about them as a company and about many other companies in the private sector. Wal-Mart, like Home Depot, Target, Lowes and others may never be seen by many people as a classic member of our country’s critical infrastructure, but what they provide to our daily non-emergency lives can take on even greater importance when the “you know what” hits the fan. It’s why today there isn’t an emergency manager in this country working on a federal, state, local or tribal government level that does not crave some type of relationship with them.

The partnership DHS is putting forward with Wal-Mart to engage the public in keeping an eye out for things of concern makes perfect sense on so many levels. For years, the company has regularly posted information via fliers, store displays and TV screens related to missing children, Amber Alerts, public health and other preparedness information. Why shouldn’t DHS, or for that matter, any other government department, reach out to consumers wherever they shop? The CDC and other public health entities reached out to them during the flu epidemic last year, and there was no outcry over that outreach! Why should there be concern over this effort?

Truth be told, the partnership with Wal-Mart is nothing more than an outgrowth of a relationship that has been growing over time. For the past several years, DHS has partnered with them (and thousands of other companies and organizations) every September as part of National Preparedness Month to help people ready themselves for emergencies in all forms. Further, Wal-Mart et al and other well-known (and unknown) companies work with DHS on programs such as the National Level Exercises, information sharing, preparedness planning and so forth.  Partnering on this effort is no different.

The boogeyman crowd that sees a conspiracy hatching the minute any dark colored Suburban drives through their town will always find a reason to point a finger and make an accusation without facts or understanding of what the goals of the partnership are all about. That’s their right, but those same finger-pointers need to recognize that the very information shared by Wal-Mart (or any other company that partners with DHS in these efforts) may well retrieve a missing child to an anguished family; stop an act of violence before it occurs; or aid a police investigation that may make a community safer and contribute to the overall resilience of the community in which they reside.

Critics have long said DHS promotes fear when it talks about terrorism and disasters and that it doesn’t do enough to educate the public about the various threats we face. When the department does decide to take the “pro-active” stance to expand the “See Something, Say Something” campaign and partner with the country’s number one retailer, it has to endure accusations like some of the crap of the past few days. I’ve long argued that the department’s motto should be “Damned if you do; Damned if you don’t” and the cynical accusations made of what they are up to is just further proof.

We should all be so fortunate to have partners like this in our corner because God knows you never know when their work might just save your life and the place you call home.

Rich Cooper blog 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
  • rftech

    The indisputable fact remains that when the shit hits the fan non-traditional resources are almost always going to be required to mitigate the situation. The fact that many in the emergency preparedness space choose to not believe this points to the difficulty in actually achieving preparedness. People need to think outside the boxes that have traditionally existed and recognize the anything and anyone within the community may represent a resource when it comes to incident management and mitigation and efforts should be made to identify these resources and develop a relationship before they are needed for doing so after the fact is far more difficult and elongates the time required for mitigation. This should be universally understood and embraced but unfortunately, as the author suggests this is simply not the case.