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Is the Private Sector Prepared?

March 10, 2010

Last Thursday afternoon, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs‘ ad hoc subcommittee on state, local, and private sector preparedness held a hearing on private sector preparedness. Three distinguished experts on homeland security and disaster preparedness appeared before committee chairman, Senator Mark L. Pryor (D-Ark.).

The themes of each presentation struck a familiar chord with regular readers of this blog and those policy wonks familiar with the growing literature on community resilience. Nevertheless, one can only wonder whether it made the necessary and desired impression, given the absence of so many members of the committee.

Stephen Jordan, executive director of the Business Civic Leadership Center of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, lead off the testimony by highlighting the business community’s commitment to investments in resilience. Business, he noted, knows all too well that disaster costs keep rising, no single agency or entity can be relied upon to respond when disaster strikes, and investments in disaster preparedness and community resilience not only reduce risks but also lower costs by improving operational efficiency.

Mr. Jordan emphasized the important role of government in supporting information sharing and coordination both among businesses and between government and the private sector (including nonprofits and civil society). He noted that efforts to map responsibilities and raise awareness of roles would make coordination more efficient and effective.

Next up was Dr. Jack Harrald, chairman of the National Academies Disaster Roundtable, who emphasized the opportunity presented by heightened awareness of our vulnerability to catastrophic events. Dr. Harrald highlighted three policy challenges that must be addressed to improve private sector preparedness and community resilience:

1.     Implementing policies that recognize and make allowances for local and regional priorities;

2.     Ensuring that federal funding is adequate and coordinated (with an emphasis on coordinated); and

3.     Creating trusted relationships based on open and frequent information sharing.

Dr. Harrald argued that the sciences (physical and social) and new technology will play increasingly important roles in helping us achieve these goals. This assistance will help us manage the large volumes of information associated with preparedness and disasters and allow us to expand relationships and create networks as required for each event. (The CrisisCamps run by ad hoc groups of volunteers around the country following the Haiti and Chile earthquakes seem particularly salient example of this.)

The final presenter, Dr. Stephen Flynn, president of the Center for National Policyremarked on the importance of community resilience to national security. He noted that the new battlespace is not military but the civil and economic spheres. Demonstrating resilience to our adversaries requires us not only to show that we can deliver a punch (militarily) but also that we can take one (socially and economically). The capacity to cope with disruptions and discontinuities will distinguish those who succeed in the future from those who fail.

Dr. Flynn noted that Americans possess the two ingredients vital to such success: self-reliance and a willingness to volunteer. Public safety, he noted, is not a partisan issue, but rather a public good to which we can all contribute.

It should come as no surprise that the presenters made a number of complementary and consistent points worth reflecting on:

1.     Decentralized, systems approaches that focus on networks rather than individuals or even organizations work better.

2.     Incentives for good behavior such as investments in risk reduction and preparedness are needed.

3.     Collaboration across sectors and levels of government, especially in the areas of grant administration and financial assistance to businesses before and after disasters, depends upon federal leadership and support.

In the question and answer period that followed, all three presenters seemed to agree that developing a resilient society depends on breaking the cycle of co-dependence in which citizens depend on agencies and officials to meet their needs after a disaster in proportion to the desire by such officials to be needed. Treating citizens not as victims but rather as resources is the first step in the process of creating more resilient communities.

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