New York City's Commodities Distribution & Recovery Planning

When planning and training for major disasters, communities often place more emphasis on the response rather than the recovery effort. However, it is critical that the recovery effort begins concurrent to the response in order for communities to be more resilient. New York City recognized this need and exercised one of its recovery plans.

Scenario-based exercise design can be used to support the experiential growth of first responders. Training exercises often are sponsored by one or more of a municipality‚Äôs response organizations. Personnel from fire, medical, law enforcement, or emergency management, with the inclusion of a healthcare institution, usually run through a mock disaster scenario that aligns with grant-based requirements. When exercises are conducted in a vacuum ‚Äď that is, unaffected by surrounding environmental influences, such as climate change, socioeconomic demographics, or the full inclusion of the whole community ‚Äď the benefits of the exercise may not be fully realized. Many organizations exercise emergency response protocols in preference to post-disaster recovery procedures.

Recovery after a major disaster begins at the same time as the response, but often lasts much longer and exhausts more resources. For example, in the aftermath of a large disaster, establishing commodities distribution centers may be necessary. If the community has a plan to accomplish this, there may be little desire to exercise this process. Although the process of distributing food following a large-scale disaster may seem routine, it involves many moving parts and coordination with reduced resource capacity and increased emergency need. Commodity distribution involves the resources of numerous agencies, organizations, community leaders, and elected officials.

Commodity Distribution Points 

Although Superstorm Sandy in 2012 provided a real-life test of commodity distribution in New York City, it did not exercise the current commodity distribution plan. In an event such as a coastal storm, a terrorist attack, long-term power outage, or any event that affects the ability of New York’s residents to obtain life-sustaining commodities, the city may opt to open commodity distribution points (CDPs), especially if everyday feeding strategies are incapable of meeting the new needs.

Between December 2014 and July 2015, New York City Emergency Management conducted the Commodities Distribution Point Exercise Series, based on the request from the logistics unit to help train and exercise its new plan. The series consisted of several trainings, discussion-based and functional exercises designed to solidify the training and toentify gaps in the decision-making, set up, and distribution processes of commodities. A planning team comprised agencies responsible for the activation and running of commodities distribution regularly met following standard Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program guidelines.

This series was different from many other exercises previously held by New York City Emergency Management because the series began with a newly finalized plan, incorporated the training of the plan to staff assigned to work in the CDPs, and focused on recovery following a large-scale incident. In planning this series, there also was a focus on increasing climate change threats, as well as preparing the whole community for resilience following disasters. Many previous exercises focused primarily on response capabilities and plans, and standard operating procedures that were relatively well versed.

A CDP is a location where temporarily unavailable life-sustaining commodities ‚Äď for example, food and water ‚Äď are distributed to the public. In New York City, CDPs are opened once one of three activation triggers are met using any of the 59 pre-identified vehicular or pedestrian sites. The triggers are as follows:

  • An incident completely prevents or is expected to completely prevent public access to life-sustaining commodities for an estimated 10,000 people or more for at least 48 hours,¬†and¬†maximum utilization of all strategies contained in the Food Access Plan cannot meet the needs of the affected population.

  • An incident disrupts or is expected to disrupt normal public access to life-sustaining commodities for an estimated 20,000 people or more for at least 48 hours,¬†and¬†maximum utilization of all strategies contained in the Food Access Plan cannot meet the needs of the affected population.

  • An obvious need for non-life-sustaining commodities arises in the population,¬†and¬†this need cannot be met through existing mechanisms in the private and/or public sectors.

The CDP structure is maintained under the direction of the CDP Command Center, with the CDP Program being a component of the larger Citywide Food Access Plan. The CDP plan itself is dynamic in that it requires an elementary understanding of Incident Command System and relies on nontraditional agencies to run both the command structure and CDPs with potentially 29 positions within the system to understand.

Guidance & Coordination for Distribution Points 

The exercise series consisted of two trainings and three exercises. The CDP Command Center and CDP trainings and workshop focused on teaching the primary staff, which would be supplied by New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. In the event of CDP activation, New York City Department of Education, Human Resources Administration, American Red Cross, and/or The Salvation Army also may have a role in supporting the operation.

The CDP Command Center functional exercise allowed the staff responsible for strategic and tactical guidance to coordinate the deployment of resources to the CDPs under simulated conditions. The full-scale exercise then allowed the CDP managers and staff to mobilize, receive, set up, and distribute commodities at two CDP sites ‚Äď one in Brooklyn and one in Queens. Personnel from Department of Parks and Recreation and Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) who were not actively participating in the CDP acted as community residents during the exercise. They were provided with pre-scripted injects to simulate language barriers, dietary concerns (Kosher, Halal, gluten-free), and accessibility issues that required adaptability and decision-making skills.

The exercise seriesentified several strengths and improvement items in the CDP plan, training, and exercise design. More importantly, this exercise series solidified the importance of adhering to a planning cycle when it comes to planning, training, and exercising new and nontraditionally exercised plans.

Lessons Learned to Expedite Recovery 

Overall, exercise participants appreciated the value of the training, but noted in their hotwash comments that the training was held too far in advance of the exercise. In actuality, the event that precipitates the set-up of a CDP could occur at any time. For example, if the training is conducted in the spring and New York City’s coastal storm season is in late summer through fall, there is a real-life gap between training and execution. It is recommended that, along with annual pre-season training, additional opportunities for training are offered for staff based on the needs of the individuals and convenience of the agencies.

Additionally, personnel who are tasked with running CDPs are typically not response-based in their daily jobs; therefore, the Incident Command System may not be universally familiar to them. Because of the plan’s reliance on a traditional command structure, personnel should have a rudimentary understanding of the CDP organizational framework prior to activation. This improved knowledge and understanding of the Incident Command System helps the Department of Parks and Recreation integrate with other city agencies in any event or incident notwithstanding a CDP event.

Because the roles for CDP staff are outside the usual scope of work for the agency personnel assigned, staff often commented on the usefulness of the job action sheets, vests, and other site set-up tools provided in the administrative kits. In this exercise, the administrative kits were the last to be unloaded from the delivery trucks, which delayed set-up. Early accessibility to these tools and information would have expedited the process and the start of distribution.

Best Practices for & Value of Exercising Recovery 

Prior to the CDP full-scale exercise, the CDP Command Center functional exercise allowed the staff to coordinate support of the CDPs in a low-stress environment. Department of Parks and Recreation managerial staff assigned to work in the CDP Command Center were then able to attend the full-scale exercise and observe the hands-on mechanics of site operation. This provided a greater understanding of the coordination required to successfully meet the needs of the community during the recovery phase following a disaster.

Also, by including CDP-specific agencies and New York City Emergency Management logistics staff in the creation of both the training and the planning of the exercise series, individualized objectives were formed throughout the exercise process consistent with the newly formed plan. The incorporation of exercise-related training proved to be a valuable integration of personnel and process that contributed not only to the success of the exercise and to the development of the plan, but also trained staff prior to the start of coastal storm season. The series also proved the value of nonresponse-based exercises by demonstrating the complexity of a CDP operation as well as the need for staff to understand the plan and its ability to adapt to community.

The CDP series highlighted the value of exercising the recovery phase of emergency management. Recognizing the importance of recovery-based scenarios as part of a comprehensive exercise program improves the preparedness and resilience of emergency management and whole community following a large-scale disaster. The exercise series led to the training of CDP staff, helped toentify gaps in the plan, and highlighted best practices in reference to understanding the diverse needs of the community following any disaster. Finally, participants were able to successfully establish a management structure and execute the functions of a pedestrian model CDP to distribute food at two sites simultaneously, an overall objective of the exercise series.

Paula M. Carlson

Paula M. Carlson is the deputy director of exercises at New York City Emergency Management (NYCEM). She began her career at NYCEM in operations before moving to the Exercise Unit where she has been assigned since 2005. In the past 10 years, she has been on the design team for exercises series such as mass fatality, hurricane, radiological, and commodity distribution. She has been a part of the response and recovery to many events including snowstorms, tornadoes, and Hurricanes Irene and Sandy. Paula is a master exercise practitioner and studied at the University of Pittsburgh, Macquarie University in Australia, and New York University’s Gallatin School.

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Thomas F. Healy

Lt. Thomas F. Healy has been with the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) since 1991. In 2008, he began working with the FDNY’s Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness, where he most recently served as exercise director. He has been involved in numerous exercises integrating first responders with other city agencies and public and private partners. This past January, he was detailed by the FDNY to serve as director of exercises at New York City Emergency Management. He is a Master Exercise Practitioner (MEP) and has a bachelor’s degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School.

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