Disaster Operations for Businesses: Options & Opportunities

Following many major disasters, state and local governments can become quickly overwhelmed with requests for additional resources during emergency response and recovery efforts. Although mutual aid compacts can help fill some of these resource needs, assistance is frequently required from non-governmental and private-sector organizations as well. After partnerships are developed, the Business Operations Center (BOC) provides a valuable tool that emergency managers can use to successfully: (a) maintain public-private partnerships; (b) collaborate on emergency response activities; (c) provide a framework to facilitate communication; and (d) locate critical resources.

In addition, by creating and maintaining mutually beneficial public-private relationships, communities are able not only to return to normal more quickly, and more effectively, but also to mitigate the overall impact of disasters on local businesses.

Three Types of Business Operations Centers

Traditionally, three separate approaches have been used to create BOCs within the jurisdictions that use them: (a) the “Independent BOC” model; (b) the “Virtual BOC” model; and (c) a model in which BOC members work directly inside a jurisdiction’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) during an emergency activation. Although each approach can be used independently, emergency managers may find it better in some situations to create a hybrid approach by using the differing aspects of each model that would be most effective in achieving the jurisdiction’s overall goals. Following are some specifics related to each of the three models.

First, an “Independent BOC” is typically established by a coalition of interested private-sector organizations within a jurisdiction – usually at the state level, but it also could be organized at the local or regional level. In this model:

  • Each member business or organization is represented by a staff member;
  • The BOC is frequently managed by a non-profit or non-governmental organization to facilitate communications with the jurisdiction’s EOC during an emergency; and
  • BOC volunteers are sometimes present in the jurisdiction’s EOC to ensure that communications and information sharing are quickly and easily available.

One example of a non-profit corporation that closely follows the Independent BOC model is the Safeguard Iowa Partnership – a voluntary coalition of Iowa business and government leaders. After the Safeguard Iowa Partnership representative receives a request for assistance, that request and other relevant information received is distributed to the other members to more quickly locate and provide the resources needed.

Second, in contrast, the “Virtual BOC” model consists of a web-based portal or application that can enable private- and public-sector organizations to communicate with one another in real time. The benefits of using an online forum for coordination include the following:

  • All relevant parties have the ability to view the information available and to provide updates from remote locations, thus eliminating the need for a BOC representative to be physically present in the jurisdiction’s EOC during an emergency activation;
  • Virtual BOC applications may incorporate alert and notification systems to inform BOC members of an activation – using landlines, cell phones, text messages, or email; and
  • The public sector is able to protect sensitive or classified information by limiting the private sector’s access to certain types of information – while still sharing other information that would be critical to the success of an emergency response.

One proven example of a Virtual BOC that has already been used in emergencies is the Private Asset and Logistics Management System (PALMS) of the New York City Office of Emergency Management – which, as a registry of private-sector resources, includes information about: (a) the goods and services available in an emergency; (b) the companies that can provide those goods and services; and (c) a point of contact who will maintain that information and both receive and respond to the emergency updates and requests received from the City.

In the third model, representatives from private-sector organizations, businesses, trade associations, and non-profit organizations all are represented within a jurisdiction’s EOC. Typically, that representation is achieved by:

  • Establishing agreements directly with these organizations, businesses, etc., to allow them to fully participate in the jurisdiction’s EOC operations;
  • Providing the space needed in the EOC to the major companies, non-profits, and trade or industry associations involved; and/or
  • Encouraging interested private-sector companies to become members of an Independent BOC – which also would be represented in the EOC.

California’s Emergency Management Agency uses this third type of BOC model and, therefore, has been provided a room in the State Operations Center (SOC). In addition, there is a BOC liaison in the SOC whose duties include: (a) coordinating requests for resources through the Logistics Section; (b) ensuring that the BOC’s needs are addressed; and (c) helping to facilitate effective coordination and communication with the SOC.

Participant Expectations & Concerns

Regardless of the type of BOC a jurisdiction chooses to implement, private-sector members tend to have a number of common expectations and concerns regarding their participation. Most importantly, open and regular communications and information sharing are critical to a BOC’s success – also for building trust between the public and private sectors. Primarily for that reason, jurisdictions should include private-sector BOC members and representatives in regularly scheduled training and exercise programs to ensure that the private-sector partners: (a) are familiar with what is expected of them during an emergency; (b) understand their own roles in the response efforts; and (c) also know what the public sector’s specific responsibilities will be.

Scheduling and carrying out the training drills and exercises also allow the public- as well as private-sector partners to: (a) identify problems and issues that may occur before a disaster strikes; (b) share feedback about their involvement that might be helpful in future response efforts; (c) revise policies and procedures as needed; and (d) improve the overall response capabilities of both sectors.

Obviously, frequent communications and information sharing must be a two-way street. Private-sector partners must be willing to share information about available resources and other non-proprietary information. In return, the public sector must provide frequent and complete situation updates as well as any other relevant information that may impact the private sector’s ability to assist with the response – and/or to resume routine business operations in and/or adjacent to the emergency area.

It should be recognized that many private-sector organizations may be willing to help in disaster response efforts. However, such assistance may be limited to some extent by organizations that do not fully understand how the public sector initiates and runs its emergency response activities. In order to have more meaningful contributions from the private sector within the BOC, it is important that public-sector representatives fully explain the emergency response processes employed at both the jurisdictional and organizational levels. The information provided should include: the chain of command established for response at the local, state, and federal levels; the processes that must be followed when initiating response activities; the management process required not only for emergency procurement but also for the donation of resources; and the reasonable performance expectations – for both the public sector and private sector – that must be met before, during, and after a response.

It also may be helpful for a jurisdiction to schedule “crash courses” in the basic principles of emergency management from time to time so that less-experienced BOC members will not feel overwhelmed by their involvement in preparedness and response activities. During those courses, special attention should be given to the “alphabet soup” of acronyms that emergency responders frequently use. A lack of familiarity with those terms might easily inhibit the private sector’s confidence in assisting with response efforts. By providing basic training in “Emergency Management 101,” the public sector can enhance the overall quality of the public-private partnerships that have been formed.

Mitigating Concerns & Building Relationships

Naturally, concerns about certain businesses or organizations being given “unfair” competitive advantages may arise any time the public and private sectors have an opportunity to coordinate directly with one another. In order to mitigate such concerns, many jurisdictions require organizations that are interested in either becoming a member of a BOC or in donating resources to first be recognized as an authorized vendor for that particular jurisdiction. Vendor pre-approval may also help to: (a) streamline the process required to procure the resources needed during an actual emergency; and (b) alleviate conflicts that may develop because of the intricacies of various state procurement laws governing the donation of resources.

Not surprisingly, liability is another primary concern for the private-sector members of a BOC – particularly related to accidents that might occur while BOC members are assisting with response efforts. The fear of liability may in itself be enough to prevent at least some private-sector organizations from participating in a BOC. However, the public sector may be able to help alleviate such fears simply by providing the basic information available – not only about potential areas of concern, but also about the various “Good Samaritan” state laws and other legislation that may provide immunity from, or at least limit, corporate and/or personal liability.

Nonetheless, all BOC participants should consult with appropriate legal counsel to determine the potential risks involved – as well as the liability and immunity laws governing those risks, which can vary greatly from state to state. The goal should be to carry out response efforts in a manner that exposes participants to the least amount of liability. In short, careful consideration of the applicable legal framework for response operations is and should be a primary factor in establishing and maintaining a BOC.

Obviously, establishing a BOC is not a simple, quick, or easy process that can be accomplished overnight. Nonetheless, emergency managers should give careful consideration to this option as part of their long-term preparedness and response planning. By investing the time and effort required – before a disaster strikes – to create and manage public-private partnerships, emergency management officials can significantly enhance their jurisdictions’ ability to respond to and recover from an incident, and may increase the overall resiliency of all of the communities directly affected.

For additional information on: Safeguard Iowa Partnership, visit http://www.safeguardiowa.org/

New York City Office of Emergency Management’s “For Businesses: PALMS,” visit http://www.nyc.gov/html/oem/html/businesses/business_palms.shtml

California Emergency Management Agency’s Business and Utility Operations Center (BUOC), visit https://web.archive.org/web/20121001215404/http://www.calema.ca.gov/LandingPages/Pages/Business-and-Utility-Operations-Center-(BUOC).aspx

Significant assistance in the preparation of this article was provided by Elizabeth Webster and JoAnne Knapp.

Amy Major

Amy Major, JD, is an Associate Director with the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security (CHHS). Since joining CHHS in 2008, she has led a variety of emergency management projects, including: Continuity of Operations planning for the Maryland Judiciary; drafting of legal handbooks and other resources regarding topics in public health emergency preparedness and response; and regional resource management planning for the Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Grant Program. She has a law degree from the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and graduated summa cum laude with a BS in Education from Kent State University.



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