THE MAGAZINE

Forging Public-Private Relationships

By Joseph Straw

Government homeland security leaders unanimously acknowledge the need to engage the private sector in their mission, from prevention of attacks on critical infrastructure to resource sharing during response and recovery. They also agree, however, that forging those relationships is among the toughest tasks they face. 

Those in government wrestling with the challenge, as well as their counterparts in the private sector, can take lessons from King County, Washington, which covers Seattle and its neighboring suburbs. In that region, public and private stakeholders have long worked cooperatively on a regional disaster plan.
 
The process began even before 9-11, dating to 1998, when county performance management specialist Richard Gelb approached Eric Holdeman, then director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM). Gelb shared his view that the county would benefit from an overarching emergency management framework that would interconnect the jurisdiction’s numerous, often conflicting city and local plans, Holdeman says. The agency decided that including the region’s private sector in the framework simply made sense, given its stake in resilience and recovery, and the resources it could bring to bear. The private sector’s enthusiasm for the plan was limited at first, he says, but that began to change with the 6.8-magnitude Nisqually earthquake that shook the Seattle region in February 2001 and the 9-11 attacks that followed soon thereafter.
 
OEM approached the Puget Sound Regional Council—which typically sets transportation, economic development, and growth policy for the region—and proposed the framework. The council supported the idea and helped establish a Regional Disaster Planning Task Force that would be charged with bringing the concept to fruition.
 
The task force brought together stakeholders from around the region, and by 2002, it had developed an initial Regional Disaster Plan, which established a concept of operations; defined emergency support functions (ESFs) such as transportation, communications, and mass care; and assigned specific responsibilities within the government.
 
“By conveying ‘who is going to do what’ among all public and private organizations, this plan allows potentially hundreds of entities to coordinate following a severe disruption,” according to an OEM guidance document.
 
Private-sector involvement in the plan mirrors the public-safety sector’s concept of mutual aid. During a response, any party to the plan that has depleted its resources under an ESF may place a request for mutual aid, which other signatories may then help satisfy if they can. The expectation is that they will first have provided for their own needs or those of their constituents. The aid is, however, not required of signatories; it’s always voluntary.
 
The Regional Disaster Plan now has at least 145 signatories, including 10 private companies, among them Puget Sound Energy (PSE), Regence BlueShield, Boeing, Microsoft, and Bank of America.
 
Health insurance provider Regence BlueShield was among the first group of firms to sign on to the plan in 2002, according to Telva Chase who is the company’s director of disaster management services. The company likes being able to help the community, says Chase. It also appreciates that the mutual-aid aspect allows them to assure their own employees “that they will have resources available to them from other participating organizations in the event of a disaster,” Chase notes.
 
Similarly, explaining the private-sector motivation, Mark Wesolowski, emergency planning manager at PSE, says that in a disaster “it is important for PSE to know how the region has been affected and how to efficiently coordinate recovery of community critical infrastructure. We facilitate this by placing a liaison at King County’s ECC (Emergency Coordination Center) during large events, an approach that resulted from our collaborative planning efforts.”
 
Initially, the regional plan required formal activation during a response. Then, in December 2006 a severe wind storm knocked out power to about 70 percent of PSE’s roughly 1 million customers (CORRECTION below). PSE’s representative to the county ECC awaited activation of the plan, according to Holdeman. That authority would normally fall to the county executive, who at the time had been hospitalized with an unrelated illness. The decision was left to a deputy who declined to activate the plan. The omission did not reflect a lack of awareness or a lack of commitment to emergency management on the county’s part. “It was just one person,” Holdeman says. “It was a toad in the road.”
 
That lesson led to a change, says Mike Ryan, who coordinates emergency management in the City of Bellevue area under a regional program funded by the federal government’s State Homeland Security Program. Now the Regional Disaster Plan is “always on,” and private sector signatories share resources as they wish.
 
Boeing, for example, operates a large facility in the Green River Valley downstream from the Howard A. Hanson Dam, which began seeping water on its flank early in 2009. The company has offered a part of its facility for use in sandbagging operations, Ryan says. Microsoft, meanwhile, has begun consulting local governments on how they can adapt the software products they already own and use for emergency management applications.
 
Elsewhere, companies’ involvement in the emergency management mission has spurred them to boost internal preparedness and continuity of operations programs. In 2009, for example, Regence established a new internal department devoted to emergency management, and it is instituting compliance with the National Incident Management System, the six-year-old national system for multi-jurisdiction, multi-party emergency management, according to Chase.
 
How can security professionals in other locations convince the senior management to collaborate with the public sector?
 
Holdeman recommends telling executives that “It’s all about relationships…. Getting to know people so you can communicate,” and that can mean the company will get help it needs at a critical time, Holdeman says.
 
And, says Holdeman, emergency managers can woo the private sector by helping them with their emergency-response needs. These could include credentialing to ensure that employees can get past checkpoints in emergencies or information, both day-to-day and, of course, during emergency incidents.
 

CORRECTION: The original article stated that a December 2006 wind storm knocked out the power for 95 percent of PSE's customers. The percentage of those who lost power was approximately 70 percent.

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