Planning for disasters: prepare, don't predict

Monday - 7/19/2010, 9:31am EDT

Robert Handfield, author, IBM Center for The Business of Government report

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By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor
FederalNewsRadio.com

A word of advice from a new report: stop trying so hard to predict the next disaster. It might actually help your agency improve emergency-response.

While that may sound counterintuitive, the issue, Robert Handfield told Federal News Radio, is to ask what the impact will be of various classes of disasters.

Hanfield, the author of the IBM Center for The Business of Government report "Planning for the Inevitable: The Role of the Federal Supply Chain in Preparing for National Emergencies", said it probably isn't possible to predict what the next pandemic will be. "But if you start thinking about what the impact might be in terms of the workforce, in terms of the network, you can then start to narrow down the possibilities in those areas that would be most impacted."

And that's where the federal supply chain comes into play, said Hanfield.

All of the public and private enterprises that provide both input into a federal agency as well as output in terms of the distribution network. Increasingly industry has started thinking these supply chains as having to become more integrated. Today I don't believe that the federal government is really prepared, or really does have that level of communication. Eighty five percent of the national response really lies outside the public sector within the private sector.Think of BP oil spill, and the huge number of private sector employees associated with that clean up effort.

Hanfield suggested agencies think about what resources would be needed in terms of general categories and impact points.

For instance, right now, one of the major threats being faced by the United States is around cybersecurity. So can we predict where and when a cyberattack will occur? Well, no. It's very difficult. I'm sure the CIA is working on that, however, if we think about "what if the computer networks were to be shut down, what would be the impact on Wall Street? What would be the impact on the health care system?" And so those are the kinds of general categories of disasters that I think federal agencies need to be thinking about in a structured format.

The goal is not to predict where and when, but what the response should be if a sort of scenario were to occur, said Handfield.

According to his report, there are four steps to the process: governance, risk planning, training, and mitigation.

Condensing them even further, Handfield said to start with really thinking about who is in your supply chain. Then assemble those people and go through some scenarios. "Think about cyberattacks, terrorist attacks pandemics, things no one wants to think about because they're horrible, but let's think about them. Let's really start to plan around if and when one of these things might occur."

We know a national disaster occurs about once a year, said Handfield, "so it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when."

Robert Handfield is the Bank of America Distinguished University Professor of Supply Chain Management, and Director of the Supply Chain Resource Cooperative at North Carolina State University.