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Supply Chain Relationships Are Key to Emergency Planning

Sandy's lesson for onsite: prepare for a crisis before there's a crisis.

Over the years, Food Management’s editorial team has covered many natural and other disasters. Food is always one of the critical issues in any relief effort and our readers have often been intimately involved in efforts to help mitigate the sometimes tragic and always difficult conditions that accompany these events.

From Hurricane Andrew to the San Francisco earthquake to river flooding in North Dakota to the events of 9/11 and Hurricanes Katrina, Irene and now Sandy, we have always found foodservice directors and their staffs working side by side with emergency responders, medical personnel and emergency management teams.

That said, the lessons learned in retrospect from these and similar events are always uncannily familiar. One of the most important is the value of an Emergency Preparedness plan, and more importantly, a plan that has been tested and reviewed on a regular basis. Too many of these are little more than bureaucratic white papers that sit in binders on office shelves, and are of little use in the case of an emergency that really requires advance planning.

There is often little a foodservice director can do to influence how effectively a host institution prepares for emergencies. But there is much a director can do to ensure that his or her department is prepared for one.

One of the most important contributions she can make is to ensure that Foodservice supply chain relationships are firmly established, that key understandings are in place with distributors and other service providers and embedded in their contracts, and that these advance arrangements are clearly documented in a disruption recovery plan.

It does seem that the industry re-learns many of these lessons each time a crisis occurs. As many readers of FM seek to remediate the impact of Sandy, it seems an appropriate time to review some of the basic issues and strategies that are key to supply chain support in times of crisis.

Establish an Emergency Preparedness Plan—and your distributor's role in it—ahead of time. While this piece of advice is all too obvious, it quickly becomes clear in many emergencies how lacking such advance planning can be. Much as a sound HACCP plan requires due diligence in supply chain evaluation, so does an emergency plan.

For example: which of your distributors will be best able to provide support in case of an emergency? Does it maintain emergency power backup generators at its site? Does it have loaner trucks that can provide temporary refrigerated storage if asked to do so? 

Importantly, what kind of emergency preparedness plan does the distributor have in place for its own business continuity?  Does it have standing mutual aid agreements with other distributors for supplies in an emergency? What kinds of emergency planning arrangements has it made with key manufacturers, such as bottled water providers?  How has it planned for disruptions among its own workforce in the event of a regional emergency?

Understand that regional emergencies are much different than individual location emergencies. Many arrangements that are adequate for localized emergencies are totally inadequate for a regional emergency, when you will be only one of many customers clamoring for emergency services and supplies. In such a case, how will your distributor establish its priorities among customers, institutions and government requests? In some cases, this may be determined by a management/leadership council; in others, it may be formally established and be formalized and written into contractual arrangements with your institution.

Ensure that both you and your suppliers have exchanged copies of your emergency plans. Understand what you can reasonably expect and make sure you and the distributor accurately share that understanding.

Make sure you exchange up-to-date lists of key contacts on a regular basis, including office, home and cell numbers, email addresses and (if appropriate) social media arrangements. These lists should include executives, administrators, key staff, not just that of your regular sales rep or contact. The order of contact priority should be clear, as should the responsibility for communicating real time crisis messages and arrangements across both organizations.

Make sure security issues are addressed in advance. Signed letters of understanding and intent and advance security clearances can avoid lots of security hassles when time may be of the essence.

Don't assume deliveries and receiving will occur in the same way they do normally. Have you established alternate delivery locations if they MIGHT be necessary? Have you checked dock height? What if the distributor employs non-traditional vehicles? Where would you store or stage larger quantities of emergency supplies if they had to be delivered suddenly? Who is in charge of ordering and receiving in case of an emergency? Who has backup authority?

Know what you can and cannot reasonably expect. Many large customers can expect refrigerated truck storage from a prime vendor distributor. You should expect to be able to confirm how you will handle emergency deliveries in advance. You can often rely on distributors to help you make additional emergency arrangements with manufacturers to expedite emergency shipments or to help locate alternate sources of supplies if that is necessary.

You may be able to arrange emergency quarantine of product that needs to be examined before use. You may be able to arrange special credit or payment arrangements (in case of accounts payable disruption, etc.)

You may be able to have your distributor deliver food supply donations, or supplies to or from a different location such as a military installation, but should be extremely careful about documenting such arrangements. Every time there is an emergency, it is followed by many examples of confusion over this point. It is very easy to miscommunicate. Simply noting that a delivery contains "relief supplies" does not mean these are free. And in most emergency situations, expect to pay list price for most items.

Special services are sometimes an option. I know of many situations where distributors have been able to provide services above and beyond their traditional roles, as for example...

• providing ice in large volumes;

• providing electric fans for nursing homes;

• delivering containers and packaging to hold relief items;

• transfer of supplies to emergency national guard snow vehicles.

Finally, don't assume that a distributor will be able to provide labor to do all of your unloading, put-away and stacking for you. A driver may be under tremendous duress to get to the next emergency stop, and may already be at the end of an 18 hour day. Do your part.

Don't expect "donations" of supplies. The distributor is likely not in any better position than you are to donate and will be dealing with its own added cost issues.

Don't expect extra help from a distributor if you aren't buying from them. Obvious, but sometimes forgotten.

A few extra things to keep in mind:

• Absolute supply availability can never be completely guaranteed in a regional emergency;

• Make sure you take beginning and ending inventories, especially for insurance and reimbursement purposes;

• Track use of specific product if you are a regional emergency center that will have to feed non-employee, non-student or non-patient customers (some have successfully used menu management systems for this). It simplifies bill back issues later.

• Assign special charge numbers for emergency supplies and deliveries;

• Keep in mind that especially in flooding situations, sanitation issues take on overriding importance when it comes to meal prep and service. Pay close attention to how this will be handled, where water supplies will come from, and if running water is not available, that staff knows your emergency alternate sanitation procedures. (See this article on hand sanitation "in the field")

• And, finally, make sure every employee clearly understands the chain of authority in an emergency. Nothing causes chaos more than a lack of knowledge about who is actually in charge at any given time.

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