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When Disaster Strikes

The Importance of Public-Private Partnerships

By Jay Fraser | July 8, 2007

When disaster strikes, how do you get all of the critical things done that need to be done? If you watch the government move in whatever direction it takes on any particular issue, often its like watching the ocean waves lapping up on shore and moving the sand from one spot to the next. It's valuable time we can't afford. Approaching the sixth anniversary of the shattering of American complacency, while many people’s minds are eased by the fact that there hasn’t been another attack, many others are quite concerned about our ability to respond to another attack or to a natural disaster.

Just two years ago Hurricane Katrina (formed August 23, 2005 and made landfall in Louisiana on August 29, 2005) and then Hurricane Rita (formed September 17 and made landfall September 24, 2005) devastated the Gulf Coast. Almost 2000 people died and losses approached $100 billion. Among the key lessons learned from Katrina/Rita was the lack of interoperable communications, and the resulting human suffering and loss of property. The nation continues to be plagued by deficiencies in the interoperability of its critical information infrastructure, particularly among first responders and the agencies that deploy them. Additionally, Katrina showed that it was unrealistic to depend solely on government agencies to react and respond to a disaster, whether man-induced (a terrorist attack) or naturally occurring.

Recently, Col. (ret.) Ken Allard wrote an editorial in which he wrote:

“…the biggest single factor determining how effectively we can respond to any disaster, natural or man-made, is communications. Neither Internet nor iPods have fundamentally altered the basic truth that crusty old Curtis Lemay summarized for his generals at the dawn of the nuclear age: "Congress may have given you your stars. But communications make you a commander." True then and true now. But more than five years after 9-11, we still have a problem…

What will it actually take for us to respond to a disaster like Katrina or to another terrorist attack on U.S. soil? It is clear that while the role of the federal government in such responses is significant, it is also clear that an essential component of our responses requires the involvement of the private sector.

How do you effectively bridge that gap between public and private sector? The real question, in fact, is how do you integrate the actions of the federal and state governments (see Katrina), in some cases the military, and those of local utilities and other infrastructure, as well as businesses and the citizenry? That task is challenging if not daunting.

Public safety and emergency response are two of the components of the three-legged stool of homeland security. The essential third component is infrastructure. Police need to cooperate with the fire department; the fire departments need to cooperate with the police departments; adjacent jurisdictions need to cooperate with each other; emergency response agencies need to cooperate with law enforcement and with the fire departments. And in a crisis, all of these need to communicate and work with local citizens.

None of this is talking about private ownership of public utilities (like Entergy owning and operating the Indian Point Power Plant in New York) or like huge contractors like Battelle (Memorial Institute) operating and managing five Department of Energy Laboratories. And this is certainly not talking about the controversial partnerships referred to when speaking about the Trans-Texas Corridor.

This is much more local, and much more something that touches the lives of every American, even if it only becomes apparent to them when the system breaks down (as it did so vividly in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina). Today, in business, people are talking about the role of public-private partnerships. In the business world, it is called partnering. In the realm of disaster preparedness and response, the underlying principle is cooperation.

Using the Michigan State University (MSU) Critical Incident Protocol – Community Facilitation Program as an example:

Community teams, comprised of public sector representatives (e.g., police, fire, or emergency services) and private sector representatives (e.g., security, facilities management, etc.), form partnerships to participate in joint planning, training and exercise activities…

Further, this CIP effort was developed by the School of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University (MSU) to build public-private partnerships in cities, counties, and regions across the nation for joint critical incident management utilizing an all hazards approach. The goal, to promote and enhance security and safety, by bringing together members of the private sector (businesses and non-profit organizations) and the public sector (government and regulatory services). The program objectives are to:

  • Create public and private sector understanding of common goals to protect lives and property while sustaining continuity of community life.
  • Encourage public and private sector entities that already engage in the assessment and planning process in isolation to form cooperative partnerships.
  • Assist those businesses and communities that lack emergency planning experience in the development of a joint emergency planning process.
  • Develop an understanding of mutual or respective goals and understand how public and private resources can compliment and support each other.
  • Serve as a resource for those engaged in the joint planning process.

This discussion can go on for volumes and may continue at some point in the future once an effort in which I am involved actually launches (so I can relate personal experiences). But before ending, it is important to highlight the work of one of the country’s experts in the field of Public-Private Partnerships, Paula Scalingi, a very recent acquaintance.

In one of her presentations from a program called BLACK ICE she outlines the importance of understanding the infrastructure interdependency issues (this particular program was focused on the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, but the strategies and lessons are transferable):

  • Need to better understand what interdependencies really are, and their importance to the operation of the infrastructures
    - Normal operations
    - Disruptions
    - Repair and restoration (for example, implications of increased outage duration times)
  • Need to expand dialog and close interaction among infrastructure service providers about their interdependencies
  • Need to understand the dependence of community and venue facilities on the interdependent infrastructures
  • Need to identify and understand Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system vulnerabilities and interdependencies

In another paper, Paula Scalingi wrote about the different types of interdependencies.

  • Cascading failure – a disruption in one infrastructure causes a disruption in a second
  • Escalating failure – a disruption in one infrastructure exacerbates an independent disruption of a second infrastructure
  • Common cause failure –disruption of two or more infrastructures simultaneously because of a common cause or common location

More recently (April 2007), Ms. Scalingi made a presentation titled Regional Resilience: Prerequisite for Defense Industry Base Resilience. From this presentation, I want to focus on two slides:

Scoping the Problem
  • Region—any area defined as such by “key stakeholders” that has a particular culture and coincides with infrastructure service areas; Can be a city, state, multi-jurisdictional area, and/or cross national borders
  • Key stakeholders—private and public sector infrastructures and organizations, non-profits, academic/research and community institutions, other entities that play significant roles in providing essential products and services and/or which are necessary for disaster preparedness and management

Ensuring that the right organizations and people are involved and “buy-in” to the cooperative effort is obviously a key to success. Overcoming distrust and fostering cooperation requires strong people skills and a bit of arm-wringing.

From the same presentation, Scalingi raises some lessons learned that are transferable to many disaster recovery situations:

  • No knowledge base of pandemic impacts re interdependencies effects and related vulnerabilities
  • Need for cross-jurisdiction, cross-sector cooperation/coordination
  • Information sharing—mechanisms and procedures
  • Roles and responsibilities—“who’s in charge?”
  • Response/recovery challenges many and varied
  • Public information needs huge/role of media as a “first responder” and communicator needs exploring
  • Major Cyber/Com resilience challenges make telecommuting no silver bullet

It is critically important that regions begin to understand the ways in which they are connected both internally (inside the fence) and externally (outside the fence). When another Katrina hits, the city has to understand how it will respond and what dominoes falling will affect others. And further, it is essential that regions begin to better recognize how to operate in concert. The problem is more than just inter-operable communications, although it will be start. Unfortunately, the “other” problem is that nearly six years after the September 11th attacks, many people believe that the U.S. is not much better prepared to react, respond and recover from a disaster. Katrina is only two years ago.