Weather Your Next Emergency

By Jeff Girardi, HIDA

Lessons learned from Hurricane Harvey

During the height of the 2017 hurricane season, this column recommended providers focus on two main preparation areas with distribution partners – contingency planning and data/technology – to minimize service disruptions during emergency events. I recently had an opportunity to learn how one such provider, Harris Health System (Houston, TX), weathered Hurricane Harvey through its combination of pre-planning, communication, and flexibility with vendor partners.

Before the storm
Patricia Darnauer, Senior Vice President, Support Services, and Jacob Titus, Operations Manager, Harris Health, outlined several opportunities where providers can contingency plan prior to an emergency. Among some of their suggestions:

Emergency contracts: During natural disasters, communications often become disabled or disrupted. Emergency product lists can be implemented based on pre-determined provider or vendor terms for various scenarios.

  • Create and maintain these lists collaboratively with vendors to continuously refine and improve.
  • Have a pre-established disaster cost center outside of affected areas, if possible, to execute orders.
  • Review emergency contracts, as well as automated ordering processes, quarterly or at least semi-annually.

Emergency vendor list: An incoming hurricane may provide the luxury of a few days’ advance notice to boost inventory and train staff, but this isn’t always the case. Having an updated list of emergency vendor contacts can minimize delays when the need arises to order products or alternatives.

  • Include vendor names, responsibility or item oversight descriptions, key contact information – possibly multiple contacts at each vendor – as well as multiple vendors for important items.
  • Review these lists annually to stay up to date for when people change roles or companies.
  • Establish a centralized delivery point for vendors to consolidate supply chain emergency operations.

County and city planner relationships: One Harris Health hospital unexpectedly became an unplanned refuge center for more than 180 hurricane evacuees, and the health system provided medical care and treatment for the 3,400 evacuees who sought protection at the county’s shelter. By establishing local government relationships and connections well before the storm, open lines of communication already existed between the system and government officials.

  • Harris Health was able to get on the phone with its distributor to advise which roads were open and which were unpassable.
  • The health system is now better prepared to pre-stage medical and non-medical supplies for future emergency intervention requests.

Distribution capabilities
Kim Bedwell, Director of Safety & Environmental Health, Owens & Minor, echoed the value of pre-working emergency preparedness and response plans with trading partners. The distributor classifies coordination efforts into four main categories:

  • Teammates – Safety is most important for anyone involved in emergency response. Ensure emergency contact information is up to date and a communication strategy is in place to keep individuals informed of ongoing developments. Consider various overtime needs for those working round-the-clock to help.
  • Customers – A distributor’s priority is to provide continuity of supplies during emergencies. It’s very important that providers and distributors have plans in place with local authorities to maintain supply flow based on road conditions since access is controlled at the local level. Additionally, a plan should be in place between partners on how to proceed if communications are disabled (for example: What orders should be shipped and is there a central back-up zone to deliver if other methods of communication are down?).
  • Delivery – During emergencies, distributors maintain updated maps of delivery areas and have the ability to prioritize fuel with transportation partners to minimize service disruptions. They also have capacity for additional equipment rentals (see below) during unforeseen events.
  • Facility – Distributors have fueled generators on site in the event of power losses. Available water and non-medical supplies are also vital when building access is severely hindered. Additional totes, pallets, or equipment may also be needed to handle increased product deliveries and distribution in advance of disasters.

Even with all of this pre-work, providers and suppliers alike must have the flexibility to improvise during unforeseen occurrences. For example, Owens & Minor rented 20 additional tractor-trailers during Hurricane Harvey to maintain supply movement, since many orders had to be diverted to nearby distribution centers beyond the reach of floodwaters.

Creative transportation efforts also included contracting with a local duck boat company to transport doctors, nurses, and evacuees – as well as vital supplies – to flooded hospitals for critical care. This imaginative solution was so successful that it has become part of the distributor’s flood action plan going forward.

Want To Do More?

Owens & Minor participates in FEMA’s National Business Emergency Operations Center (NBEOC), and so can you. This voluntary program is open to all members of the private sector, including large and small businesses, chambers of commerce, trade associations, universities, think tanks, and non-profits.

> Daily planning calls with public and private sector

> Networking opportunities to discuss ideas

> Direct contact with Regional Response Coordination Centers and other resources to funnel access requests

> Publications, resource links, status updates, and more all available on one dashboard

> Coordinates National Level Exercises for preparedness drills

To learn more, visit

Disaster preparedness and contingency planning is not a one-time effort, but an ongoing process. Through active collaboration with key vendor and government partners, you too can help minimize disruptions before your next emergency event occurs.