The year 2005 kicked off with the incredible disaster of the Indian Ocean tsunami and continued with the additional disasters of hurricanes in the southern USA and earthquakes in South Asia. In all situations, never was the complexity and importance of logistics to disaster relief operations under more of a microscope. At the same time, in my opinion, never was the complexity and importance of logistics least understood by media reporting on the above events.
It is not realistic to expect media reporters to be experts in disaster relief logistics, but we should all expect them to at least respect the amount of planning and resources required to execute disaster relief operations under extreme conditions. Even under the best conditions, the top logistics firms in the world sometimes fail to deliver something as common as a book or computer in the right place at the right time. I won't even go into my own experience sitting with a keyboard and computer tower in my Michigan apartment while my monitor was lost in Washington State courtesy of UPS.
When I arrived in Japan last summer and began to feel the random earthquakes again, I immediately contemplated how a sophisticated logistics system might respond to disaster relief in the case of a catastrophic earthquake at the heart of Tokyo. Off the top of my head I thought that the government could assign wards to the most capable logistics firms based on a number of earthquake damage scenarios, ensuring that an emergency response in delivering relief supplies would not be critically delayed, diminished or even destroyed. Someday this year I plan to get around to searching the government sites in Japanese to see if this has been considered.
But for other parts of the world, some are already ahead in the game of employing sophisticated logistics solutions for relief agencies historically uncoordinated, competing for resources, and lacking in operational leadership. On November 22, the Wall Street Journal wrote a fantastic article, "In Year of Disasters, Experts Bring Order to Chaos of Relief"(subscription required), on such efforts employed for the Tsunami, Katrina and Kashmir disasters.
First, in Kashmir:
Amid the chaos of the huge Kashmir earthquake relief effort last month, an experiment took place in Hangar 14 of the Pakistan Air Force base in Islamabad.
Chris Weeks, an executive on loan from express-shipping company DHL Corp., worked with American soldiers to improvise a method for quickly getting food and shelter to some of the hundreds of thousands of quake survivors camping in remote mountainsides in the Pakistani province, where roads and airports are rare. Their solution: the "speedball."
They stuffed tents, food and other supplies into red polypropylene bags that DHL has been using for years to move loose cargo, tossed them into Chinook helicopters and headed for rough landing strips in the hills. In just two weeks, they delivered some 6,000 of the bean-bag-chair-size speedballs, each holding shelter, food and water to keep seven people alive for 10 days. "They would kick them out the door at landing strips," says U.S. Air Force Col. Richard Walberg, the officer in charge at the Islamabad base. "That was quite a system."
The bags are one product of an unusual effort by the global cargo industry to try to transform the notoriously inefficient world of disaster relief. A loose-knit collection of companies and executives are seeking to help governments and private aid groups respond more effectively to major disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes.
They're applying to emergency-supply chains the nuts-and-bolts logistics techniques that helped revolutionize their industry and helped make global giants of companies like Dell Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
The UN has emphasized the importance of logistics for disaster relief:
In a year of unprecedented calamities, that expertise is now in high demand. "The most important thing in a sudden disaster is logistics," says Adrian van der Knapp, who coordinates emergency-relief operations for the United Nations and helps DHL get quick government authorization to go into disaster zones. Aid groups and the U.N. are often deluged with donated supplies but struggle to get them where they're needed, he adds. "There is no U.N. fire brigade or standby army that can be called upon in natural disasters."
The origin of this approach to disaster relief operations can be largely traced back to one pioneer:
The effort to bring modern shipping methods to disaster relief is largely the inspiration of a San Francisco cargo tycoon named Lynn Fritz. He sold his own company, Fritz Cos., to United Parcel Service Inc. in 2001, banked some $200 million and started looking for a philanthropic enterprise. He soon became an evangelist for applying logistics techniques to the delivery of disaster relief, eventually founding the Fritz Institute, a nonprofit devoted to the cause. The slight, frenetic Mr. Fritz, 63, runs it from the suite where he lives at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco.
"I did not just want to be a philanthropist that gave to local charities," Mr. Fritz says. "The supply chain for the humanitarian emergency is highly unpredictable.... We thought we could apply these skills with the help of the private sector."
Although the article goes on to give examples in more detail, the point is clear: an efficient and effective logistics operation is the critical component to saving lives in disaster relief. So the next time you order something online or pick up an item at the store, think about everything required to get it where and when you want it. Then, imagine wanting that same object delivered in extreme weather, locations with no roads, no communications, imperfect equipment and limited resources.
Who are you going to call?