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Providing disaster response products

December 1st, 2010 / By: / Feature, Tents

Planning and preparation are required to provide products and services in response to a disaster.

When Hurricane Katrina flooded streets and houses in 2005, telephone calls flooded suppliers of products that could be used to provide shelter and other disaster relief. “I sold everything I had in warehouses—nine tractor-trailers [of tents] in less than two days,” recalls Pat Moughan, general manager of Losberger US in Frederick, Md.

When an earthquake, hurricane, flood, fire or other devastation occurs, governments, emergency agencies and humanitarian organizations need to respond quickly to the needs of people left without shelter, clean water and other necessities. Any company that makes or sells products that address those concerns should pay attention to how they can fit into the picture.

Losberger, for example, is looking at staging rapid deployment inflatables in three different regions of the world—Europe, Asia and the United States—based in part on its experience after the earthquake in Haiti.

“What usually happens when something along that scale occurs is I get a call from 10 rental guys asking, ‘What do you have?’” Moughan says. “So what we have gotten better at as a company is having that information.” Losberger, which has worldwide operations, designated a point person and procedures to shorten its response time. Whereas he had an inventory of products and locations 12 hours after the Haiti quake, Moughan says now he can obtain the same information in three to four hours.

Finding a need and filling it

“One of the biggest challenges in providing for disaster relief is quickly identifying needs that we can help fill by applying our resources,” says Bjorn von Euler, director of corporate philanthropy for ITT Corp. “Because of this, cash is the most important—and often the most appropriate—donation for immediate response efforts.” Within hours of this summer’s floods in Pakistan, ITT tapped into its Rapid Response Fund and soon after donated five portable water treatment systems to provide clean water to 200,000 people.

The company, headquartered in White Plains, N.Y., similarly delivered portable water treatment systems to earthquake victims in Haiti. Employees in Texas and New York worked around the clock, “redesigning on the fly,” so the units could be made with available parts, tested and coordinated with suppliers and shippers.

“Rather than keeping a large inventory of products in storage, our emergency response committee and other ITT employees work to address specific needs as they arise,” von Euler says. “At present, we have a small stockpile of water treatment systems that are reserved for emergencies. The storage and location of these systems are managed by our nonprofit partner, Mercy Corps. In some instances, systems remain in a disaster recovery zone for months after an emergency occurs and are only moved when the next disaster hits.”

According to von Euler, ITT, as part of its planned expansion of a philanthropic effort founded in 2008 (ITT Watermark), “will work to improve our response logistics … in key transportation hubs and disaster hot spots around the world.”

Glenn Harp & Sons Inc. of Tucker, Ga., makes heavy-duty tarps for over-the-road use, but it’s the blue poly tarps it imports from overseas that relief agencies want after a disaster. CEO Ray Harp recalls when back-to-back hurricanes pounded Florida several years ago. “FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) asked me, ‘How many of this size do you have?’ I think that day I had 200,000.” By the time he received FEMA’s purchase order four days later, he had 78,000 and it would take him 90 to 120 days to get more.

“FEMA was very upset that I hadn’t kept the inventory. I am not sitting here for four days waiting for their purchase order,” Harp says. “We were getting calls from people who were desperate to get something over their roofs. … I remember there was one company that bought 10,000 20-by-30s for their employees.”

“Most of the aid agencies want you to have it on the shelf, but obviously there’s very little by way of funding, so it does become an issue of cash flow,” notes Keith Smith, president of JKS International LLC of Picayune, Miss. His company makes flexible containers that hold anywhere from four to 265,000 gallons of potable and waste water.

Responding to disasters, of course, affects day-to-day business. Creative Textile Solutions Ltd. of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, manufactures a range of storage and protective covers. “Most times, inventory levels of raw materials are such that we can produce as needed,” says Paul Aumento, president. “In the case of specialty products, we have good vendor relations, allowing us to get base fabrics quickly if needed. Day-to-day business is affected, but we try to provide the best service, no matter the situation.”

And while business-as-usual gets disrupted, “In the first 48 hours it’s just a hiccup,” Moughan says. “Logistics are the biggest thing. We are a company that ships stuff all over the world. We tap into the [freight/shipping] resources we have when it’s not an emergency,” says Moughan. “It’s just speeding up the process.”

Relationship building

If a company with a website sells a standard product that an emergency response agency or organization is likely to find easily with an Internet search (such as blue poly tarps), it may not need to promote itself as a supplier for disaster situations. And many companies have established customer bases (such as tent manufacturers with tent suppliers) that link them to the disaster relief market.

However, no manufacturer or seller of aid-related products can go wrong in reaching out to local affiliations of organizations such as the American Red Cross or registering with government agencies such as FEMA (see “ Disaster relief: A coordinated effort”). Let them know what products or services you can provide, and the time frame in which you can provide them.

Creative Textile Solutions has provided disaster relief products to contractors and worked directly with relief organizations. “Communication, timely deliveries and realistic pricing points help establish good rapport with all levels of an organization,” Aumento says.

The Losberger Group, which has a Rapid Deployment Systems (RDS) division in Germany, is registered as a supplier at the United Nations Global Marketplace and other aid organizations, such as the Red Cross.

“ITT has worked with Mercy Corps to establish an emergency response fund, created to provide fast funding to support initial, on-the-ground assessments of short- and long-term needs so that Mercy Corps is then able to quickly advise ITT and other partners on the need for water treatment and other essential systems,” von Euler says.

To ensure the proper allocation of products in the chaos generated by a disaster, ITT has instituted “regional emergency response trainings”: ITT employees prepare relief workers to install water filtration units and troubleshoot situations that may arise.

“Open and honest conversations with Mercy Corps were critical to identifying which of ITT’s products could provide value in an emergency setting,” von Euler says. “Product donations should be based on demand and an officially expressed need, not necessarily what companies can supply. While the majority of ITT’s product portfolio is capable of providing water to hundreds of thousands of people, much of it is not compatible for response efforts.”

Businesses that are not as large as ITT may not be able to donate products or services, but they shouldn’t take the opposing extreme of charging more for a product just because it’s desperately needed. “We’ve heard horror stories of companies doubling and even tripling the price of tarps [after hurricanes],” Harp says. “I have to sleep at night. I am not going to do that.” In fact, Harp absorbs the cost of overtime pay when, during a hurricane, employees work until 8 or 9 o’clock at night filling trucks.

“Any business owner makes a decision that taking care of their fellow man is more important than the bottom line.”

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer based in Palm Springs, Calif.

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