Sunday, November 25, 2012

Forklifts, big trailers and Hurricane Sandy

I am sure that New York City and the American Red Cross aren't resting on their laurels about how perfectly they played their response to Hurricane Sandy. Emergency management is logistics, and doing logistics in a big city is tough. After two weeks spent in NYC during the Sandy response, I feel like FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, who recounted his response to a reporter's question about how he knew so much about emergency management by saying: "I've been doing this for so long that I've made every possible mistake and learned from it."

While in NYC I had the great opportunity to work with the Red Cross Disaster Relief Operation and the highly professional NYC Office of Emergency Management. I saw both organizations making mistakes with the exceptional clarity of one who has made the same damn mistakes myself. And some more than once.

A lot of people have years and decades of disaster experience but very few have experience in disasters dealing with millions of people. And of those who have experience in such disasters, most were operating at the street or shelter level, and not in the big emergency operations centers. I have spent most of my emergency management career working in the big EOCs, places full of so much information and so little clarity about what is really happening to those people working in the cold or the heat in the affected areas.

My job in the EOC, when boiled down to its essential essence, is to make sure the people in the street and shelter have the right kind of resource, with the right capability, in the right quantity, at the right time. This sounds simple but its not easy.

The responders in the affected area are worrying about Right Now. Right Now could be the next minute, or the next hour or Today. For them, long range planning is Tomorrow. At the State EOC in Tallahassee I can't do anything Right Now. If you need something Right Now, and that resource is already positioned in the Logistic Staging Area (LSA), I can arrange to have it delivered to you tomorrow. We can't deliver it to you Right Now because all the vehicles at the LSA are out delivering resources that were requested yesterday.

If the resource you need is not in the LSA, then I have to go get it. This means that I have to arrange for the State to buy it or request FEMA to provide it. This can take 48-96 hours, at best. And if you need it Right Now, 48-96 hours sounds like Next Year. Therefore, my time horizon is never Right Now, but is focused on what I anticipate the people in the field are going to need 48-96 hours from now.

That means that I am in the prediction business. In small disasters any errors in my predictions are usually small. In big disasters the errors in my predictions have the potential to be very large. And the question is rarely about WHAT we need but rather HOW MANY. That is why I have spent many years trying to devise ways to predict the quantity of resources that we would need in a big disaster.  One of the best ways to improve predictions is to make them a collective judgment of the stakeholders involved. In Florida, we do that on the daily state mass care conference call.

What happens in big disasters is that the people in the EOCs are stuck in Right Now and aren't thinking about the next 48-96 hours. The reason they are stuck in Right Now is that they are understaffed for the size of the disaster. The reason that they are understaffed is they don't know what they don't know. You don't know what you need in a big disaster until you experience one. But big disasters don't happen that often, so few people have the experience required to deal with the more complex issues presented.

In 2009 the State of Florida ran a catastrophic hurricane exercise to test our new catastrophic hurricane plan. This was Craig Fugate's last exercise as Florida's EM Director. I was the State Mass Care Coordinator in the exercise and I was overwhelmed by the quantity and complexity of the problems that I had to address. At one point, I needed to be in 3 critical meetings at the same time. I learned that I was understaffed for the size of the disaster and needed to plan to do something about it should the real event happen.

Which brings me to forklifts and big trailers. The biggest and most impressive lesson that I learned while responding to the 8 hurricanes that hit Florida in a 16 month period during 2004 and 2005 was the critical importance of having lots of big trailers and forklifts.

In big disasters involving millions of people you need to fill the big 48 ft or 53 ft trailers and direct them to a staging area near to or within the disaster area. The staging area is important because when you order the trailer loads (48-96 hours in advance) you may not know the ultimate destination for the load.

This is the most effective way to get large quantities of "stuff" to large quantities of people in a big disaster. In the 2 weeks that I spent in NYC I didn't see or hear about people using lots of big trailers and forklifts. They were using a lot of straight trucks and unloading the cargo by hand. This technique works just fine in little disasters. In big disasters you need big trailers to push the supplies as far forward into the affected area as possible and then unload them using pre-positioned forklifts.

I spoke to several people about why they didn't use more forklifts and they said that they tried. There are thousands of forklifts in NYC but they aren't where they need them for the disaster. And moving forklifts around is H-A-R-D. They're heavy and don't travel very fast.

That is why I advised the American Red Cross to get a national forklift contract for use in big disasters such as Sandy. We used these contractors in Florida to position forklifts at over 70 Point of Distribution (POD) sites in Dade and Broward Counties after Hurricane Wilma in 2005. The contractors carried the forklifts in on flat bed trailers and dropped them off at the POD locations and field kitchen sites.

Another important reason to have the capability to quickly pre-position forklifts is that in a big disaster big trailers become a critical shortage item. In 2004 the Florida SERT and FEMA disrupted commerce in the Eastern United States because we rented every available trailer and filled them with disaster supplies. We needed the forklifts to empty the trailers at the field sites because we needed the empty trailer in order to go back and get more disaster supplies. And when you are trying to empty thousands of big trailers, you need a lot of forklifts.

Finally, to make this system work you need tractors to move the trailers to the field sites. The big "linehaul" tractors with the sleeper cabins are great to move trailers inter-city but don't serve as well positioning trailers in the city. The linehaul tractors move the freight from origin to the LSAs. The "city" tractors make the short trips from the LSA to the field site.  You can contract for a fleet of city tractors with drivers and a dispatcher at the LSA to make sure the supplies get to the right place at the right time.

Boy, this all sounds expensive, you must say. But in a $30 billion or $50 billion or $100 billion disaster these costs are chump change.

Besides, there are 3 types of disaster responses: Efficient, Cheap or Quick. You have to choose one. The public and our elected officials demand that it be Quick. Our job is to make it happen.


  1. You’ve used the terms SERT and FEMA in your blog. Please tell me the meaning of these terms.

  2. SERT is the State Emergency Response Team and FEMA is Federal Emergency Management Agency.

  3. Anonymous12:45 AM

    I think it is more economical if the government will just buy a new one instead of used forklifts. Because, the government will not be sure on the quality of the used vehicles not unless it comes from a reputable selling company.

    1. In this scenario the forklifts were rented as opposed to purchased.

  4. Anonymous11:52 PM

    Thanks for this post!

  5. What is that linehaul tractor? This seems pretty strange to know about it. Can I have the picture?

    1. A linehaul tractor hauls trailers intercity and is much bigger and more powerful than a city tractor, which hauls freight within the city.

  6. That's really an informative post. I appreciate your skills. Thanks for sharing.