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Disaster Zone: Emergency Management’s Role in COVID-19 Response Logistics


July 6, 2020 by Eric Holdeman
Category: COVID-19

Disaster Zone: Emergency Management’s Role in COVID-19 Response Logistics

The history of emergency management’s involvement with the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a bit checkered. Initially, there were multiple paths followed at the national, state, and local levels of government, which led to some confusion and duplication of effort. A few local jurisdictions, like Seattle and King County, had their offices of Emergency Management involved very early to help with the coordination effort, which included working hand-in-hand with their local public health departments. I know in Seattle’s case they used the city’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) as the physical coordination point from the beginning.

FEMA Involvement

At the national level, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was not a visible or active player early in the response to COVID-19. That began to change, however, when states requested and obtained presidential declarations of disaster, which initiated funding for a pandemic response. These actions “opened the checkbook” for federal reimbursement of some response costs and also provided governors with the ability to call up the National Guard in their state to help with the coronavirus-related response.

The Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) of medical equipment and drugs is managed by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). As the virus rapidly progressed, there was a significant development at the national level and FEMA was brought in to provide logistical “assistance” to HHS for the complex task of distributing the stockpile to all 50 states and territories. FEMA also got involved in restocking the stockpile and managing the shipment of critical elements, including much-needed supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE). These are the masks, gowns, face shields, and gloves used by medical personnel to protect themselves from being infected while treating people with the coronavirus. Another key piece of SNS equipment included their stock of ventilators, devices that help ill patients breath when their lungs are unable to function on their own.

Much has already been written about the PPE supply crisis that many hospitals were facing so I won’t rehash that issue. The status of PPE is much better these days, though there are still some areas of the country experiencing shortages of some supplies. For now, the production cycle is finally beginning to catch up with the demand, though we are still predominantly dependent on China and other overseas suppliers for meeting many of our medical supply needs.

When FEMA took over the lead for the distribution of supplies and equipment from the SNS, this also began the process of bringing state and local emergency management agencies more squarely into the mix.

Disaster Response Logistics

In disasters, the logistics norm is that cities will try to meet the needs of their jurisdictions by first utilizing their own internal resources, requesting mutual aid, and also purchasing what is needed from the private sector. When those resources have been exhausted, cities “normally” turn to their respective county governments to request any additional equipment, supplies, and personnel they may require. The county follows the same process as cities, first by trying to fulfill resource requests internally. If that fails, they pass the request up to their state emergency management organizations. These organizations in turn try to meet the requests with resources available on hand and, failing that, they ask for federal resource assistance by going through the state to FEMA.

The above process was “turned on” for COVID-19. States were expected to poll cities and counties for what they needed, consolidate those requests, and send them to FEMA for fulfillment. Of course, early in the pandemic there were not enough supplies. States would get shipments of goods and had to break them down, prioritizing which jurisdiction would get what items and in what quantity. No one got everything that had been requested.

Gaming the System

One of the challenges in the above system comes when competing organizations begin overstating their needs as a hedge against potential shortages. A firefighter once explained this practice of deliberately asking for more than you need by using this example: “Six is three, three is one, and one is none. So, if you need one — ask for six!” This issue will always be with us, as people feel the need to game the supply system.

Lack of Internal Coordination

Another challenge that was experienced with the COVID-19 response, and which is common to almost all disasters, is having multiple requests coming from different elements of the same organization for the same need. In the early phases of the COVID-19 response there were many requests coming from both health organizations and emergency management organizations. This duplication was eliminated when FEMA specified that all requests were to be sent through only one channel.

The Way It’s Supposed to Work

One benefit of the way the COVID-19 response has unfolded has been how it has led the supply, request, and fulfillment system to work the way it is supposed to, albeit after some initial fits and starts. In other types of typical disasters we have experienced in the past, like storms, floods and fires, this level of supply and logistics management effort was rare. The only past disaster I can think of where logistics became a critical piece of the response was the 2014 Oso mudslide. In that case the state’s logistics system did not function well for a multitude of reasons.

Not Out of the Woods Yet

The reality is that we are not out of the woods yet with the coronavirus. Nationally, cases continue to increase in many areas of the nation and the return of cooler weather, along with the potential for a combined COVID-19 and annual flu season in the fall, has many public health officials predicting a significant second-wave event.

While medical supply needs are being met for the moment, individually we should not let our guard down about taking personal protective measures seriously — even if some or all your constituents are not doing likewise. Remember that the majority of deaths in the 1918 flu pandemic came in the fall and not when the virus initially appeared.


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Eric Holdeman

Eric is a nationally known emergency manager and consultant. He has 28 years of emergency management experience, having served at the federal, state (Washington), and local government (King County) level, as well as in the nonprofit sector. He is the Principal for Eric Holdeman and Associates and serves the Director for the Center for Regional Disaster Resilience, which is part of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER).

He is a prolific writer, authoring numerous articles for professional journals and opinion pieces for local, regional and national newspapers including the Washington Post. He is a Senior Fellow and contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine, where he blogs about emergency management and homeland security at www.disaster-zone.com.

Eric is writing as a guest author. The views expressed in guest columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.

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