For the past decade, Kathy Fulton has dealt with many disasters. As executive director of the American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN), she has become a “master” at coordinating supply chain assistance for U.S. humanitarian relief efforts. While ALAN often deals with more traditional crises like natural disasters, the emergence of the novel coronavirus has presented a different set of challenges for Fulton’s organization to tackle.
Unlike a fire, flood, or hurricane, which impacts the movement of supplies due to physical roadblocks, COVID-19 has upended the supply chain by creating scarcity of essential supplies like personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning products, and even toilet paper. To help businesses and nonprofit organizations navigate a constantly changing landscape to deliver essential goods across the country, ALAN has taken a number of actions. One new innovation that the organizations has created is the Supply Chain Intelligence Center. This online mapping tool shows the status of roads, ports, and airports as well as the latest policy change at national, state, local, and county levels.
Fulton’s previous experience in supply chain resiliency and disaster preparedness has helped her mobilize resources quickly during the current pandemic. She spoke recently with CSCMP’s Supply Chain Quarterly Managing Editor Diane Rand about ALAN’s challenges and what governments and businesses can do during this crisis and in the future.
We’ve been involved with this response since late January, even before WHO (World Health Organization) officially labeled it a pandemic on March 11, so our response has evolved during that time. We started out by ensuring that public health messages were amplified, as well as participating in a project to analyze international freight flows to examine supply chain health.
Once the virus started spreading in the U.S., our support of the analysis work continued, and we began convening a weekly call with our industry association partners to surface and solve common issues. Most recently we’ve been focusing on coordinating donations of logistics services and equipment to help our nonprofit partners surge support for the increasing demand for their services.
We’ve also been building out our Supply Chain Intelligence Center (www.alanaid.org/map) to provide, free of charge, actionable information for organizations—a single location where they can see all of the waivers that enable commodity movements as well as policies that restrict movement. We know there has been such a variety of policies rolled out across states and counties that it can be difficult to keep up with them all. We want to reduce that particular bit of friction so that nourishment, hydration, and medical supplies can get to those who need them rapidly.
What challenges has the organization faced, and what needs do you have?
The challenges we are experiencing are due to the novel nature of the crisis, the volume of work, and the vastness of geography. During a traditional crisis response like a hurricane, fire, or flood, we’re dealing with a limited geography and responding to damages to property and infrastructure.
With COVID-19, we’re working with organizations from across the United States, and instead of physical roadblocks preventing the movement of supplies (a logistics problem) the challenges have been more related to policies, guidance, and supply-side issues. There are actual supply shortages of PPE—and while ALAN doesn’t get involved in medical and health care supply chains, we have been fielding a few requests and trying to help where possible. That is even more challenging, because it isn’t just a logistics problem (which is where most of our expertise lies), but it is truly a supply problem.
Another supply problem we’re seeing is the lack of donations to food banks from traditional sources. We’ve been able to help a couple of organizations with items to expand their capacity to serve their constituents, but it isn’t a short-term problem. Unemployment numbers are climbing each week, so keeping those food safety nets stable and able to serve those in need is always at the front of our minds.
Internally to our operations we’ve expanded our volunteer operations. For needs, we are constantly in need of ongoing financial and in-kind support. I’ll be bold and say that ALAN needs additional staff to support our work, not just during this crisis but on an ongoing basis. We have some amazing volunteers basically on loan to us right now—and having the extra hands has been a huge benefit to our ability to rapidly service requests. We’d welcome support to expand our operations.
Did any of ALAN’s past efforts in supply chain resiliency and disaster preparedness help you with response to COVID-19?
Yes, absolutely—we try to learn from every single response we support, and the relationships we’ve built and knowledge we’ve gained in the past 15 years are being called upon heavily. We’ve participated in activities like the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, so we had some awareness of what challenges there may be.
And, we’ve participated in pandemic table-top exercises—one notable exercise in 2012 in the Mid-Atlantic region predicted the challenges we’ve experienced with grocery hoarding. I also think the fact that ALAN has always had virtual operations helps us immensely. We’ve done video conferencing for several years—so there was no problem moving to work from home.
If you could give advice to government leaders on how to ensure that supply chains will be resilient during and after the crisis, what would you say?
Fortunately, I don’t have to come up with that answer on my own. I was fortunate to serve on a National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine study that examined that very question, through the lens of the 2017 hurricane season. We came to 4 recommendations:
1. Shift the focus from pushing relief supplies to ensuring that regular supply chains are restored as rapidly as possible through strategic interventions.
2. Build a system-level understanding of supply chain dynamics as a foundation for effective decision support.
3. Support mechanisms for coordination, information sharing, and preparedness among supply chain stakeholders.
4. Develop and administer training on supply chain dynamics and best practices for private-public partnerships
Basically, encouraging government to work with businesses, not in parallel, or at worst, in competition with them. That is one of ALAN’s key missions—we want to build relationships between and across all sectors, because relationships allow you to work together and be more resilient in the face of a crisis.
What have you learned from this pandemic?
Number one on my lessons learned is to not eat all of the chocolate in the first two days of the stay-at-home order. All joking aside, we are unfortunately seeing a lot of the same lessons we’ve observed in other crises. People still don’t coordinate their activities well—the many competing programs to get PPE into the hands of medical professionals looks very similar to the individual collection drives we see after traditional disasters.
On the positive side, logistics and supply chain will find a way to serve demand. Despite all of the challenges with policy restrictions and extreme demand, food is still getting to people in (mostly) the same ways it did before. Mostly, because of the reduction in consumption of food away from home (restaurants).
Finally, one of my biggest observations is regarding the strength of normalcy bias. I think many businesses reacted late because they thought this wasn’t going to be that bad. My favorite argument these days is whether or not COVID-19 was a “black swan” [event]. I say no—we had all the warnings that something like this was possible, our normalcy bias just prevented us from believing that it could ever happen.
What are some best practices that you have seen in place?
We are seeing business-to-business collaboration—like where workers from the food service industry are being shared with food warehouses in the retail supply chain. It supports the surge in demand and also keeps those food service workers employed. We are also seeing a lot of cross-industry sharing of guidance and practices on how to protect the workforce, such as how to sanitize facilities, etc.
Finally, like with the volunteers being loaned to us, we are seeing businesses be generous with their support of humanitarian causes—via ALAN and other channels. We’ve heard more than once that businesses “just want to help, and they’d rather pay [their] employees to do something to help than just sit around.” I hope that that spirit of collaboration and community continues.
Do you think this will lead to more companies paying more attention to risk management and supply chain resiliency in the near future? If so, what steps do you expect to see companies take?
I hear a lot of businesses talking about re-examining strategies, and I hope they will. We’re hearing about supplier diversity in terms of companies and geographies; and re-examining inventory. This attention may be short term as businesses determine that some of these strategies are more expensive. It will definitely be interesting to watch as the world recovers from this crisis and determines how to move forward.