A Perspective on FEMA’s Public-Private Partnership Conference

December 16, 2015

December 16, 2015 - Last week, I attended the Fifth Annual FEMA Public-Private Partnerships Conference (#PPPWayForward) down in lovely New Orleans. This two day conference is a major effort of the FEMA Private Sector Office to foster relationships between public and private organizations.  I was excited to see the private sector office so re-energized after welcoming Rob Glenn as its new Director this summer.  And he gets it.  It was refreshing not to have to lead with my usual pitch about why the public sector should coordinate with private sector healthcare—let alone trying to get them to provide support in times of disaster.  It’s encouraging to see the recognition of the critical role and value that business brings to the table.

But it’s not all bonbons and roses (two things on my Christmas list if you’re interested). While the event was well attended, I was surprised to only see a handful of large companies. By my highly unofficial count, just 22 non-vendor large national or multi-national companies were represented.  I attribute this to a mix of the private sector office being fairly quiet these past couple of years and a lack of return on investment associated with attending this kind of meeting. It’s disheartening, but not new in the preparedness and response space.  Bottom line is that the preparedness community hasn’t made a successful argument as to why business should pay closer attention and work to partner with the public sector on these issues. Until we do or until there is a major disaster, it’s going to be the few and faithful at these events.  

And while I’m typically a fan of FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, I found his remarks not in the spirit of collaboration and constructive relationship building.  He certainly put most private sector folks I spoke to on the defensive. He spoke about the role of FEMA during disaster responses and called out companies for asking FEMA to undertake activities that the agency is not permitted to do. 

While it’s of course true that FEMA has limits on how it can provide assistance, I think this was an example of partners talking past each other instead of to each other.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked to violate anti-trust laws and provide inventory information to government officials. It’s not because they are trying to get me to break the law, it’s that they don’t understand the private sector operating environment and what rules we have to follow.  I’d wager it’s the same with requests to FEMA.  And working with locals is great when relationships exist, but under-resourced emergency management departments don’t have the ability to know everyone, especially companies not headquartered in their state. That certainly is the role of FEMA.

Administrator Fugate’s remarks were also surprising because he more than any past Administrator has championed the role of the private sector and the need to build partnerships.

That aside, I found the attendees incredibly receptive to an open dialogue throughout the event.  I met many of the amazing state emergency managers running Business Emergency Operations Centers (BEOCs), and I’m eager to continue to build relationships with them.  And I’m hoping that next year we can make the conference a three day event to allow an even deeper look at a number of issues.  Many thanks to the FEMA Private Sector Office for a great event with valuable dialogue, and here’s to even more in 2016.

Emily Lord

Emily Lord is the Executive Director of Healthcare Ready. She provides strategic guidance and oversight to programs that build community health resilience in times of disaster or pandemic outbreaks. This includes creating partnerships with the private-sector medical supply chain, as well as public health NGOs and local, state and federal government agencies. Emily has led Healthcare Ready through multiple natural disasters including Hurricane Sandy. Emily’s expertise focuses on business continuity and resilience.