Emergency Logistics at the Heart of Disaster Relief Operations

Our world has witnessed a substantial number of disasters from rapid to slow onset and from natural to manmade. Rapid-onset disasters are of the highest concern and are the ones requiring the most flexibility. Given their nature, frequency, and scale of damage, the concept of emergency logistics has emerged as a worldwide theme. Emergency logistics has been defined as the support function that ensures the timely delivery of emergency resources and rescue services into the regions affected by disasters. It is considered the key to efficient and effective alleviation of disaster impact in its immediate aftermath. Thereby, relief supply chains are expected to be the most agile and adaptive.

Last-mile delivery is the final stage of the relief supply chain. It is defined as the distribution of relief supplies from local distribution centers to demand locations where affected populations can access them. Last mile distribution comes with logistical limitations related to damaged transportation infrastructure, insufficient transportation options as well as lack of coordination among humanitarian actors. Last mile delivery comprises three key operational decisions: resource allocation, vehicle delivery scheduling, and routing.

Although we can observe clear parallels between business and humanitarian logistics, the latter comes with greater challenges. Knowledge transfer between the two is rather limited. For example, unlike in the business sector, the timeliness of relief supply and distribution is rarely controllable within the context of emergencies both in terms of inbound and outbound logistics. Resource allocation and management remain key areas of concern. Moreover, real-time data on relief demand that is so crucial is rarely accessible. Unfortunately, most of the literature available on supply chain and logistics is concentrated on the business sector to the neglect of non-profit and public sectors.

Emergency logistics in a disaster context comprises 3 phases:

  • Preparedness – this stage includes essential planning for emergencies and the assessment of existing vulnerabilities. At this point coordination structures and mobilization, mechanisms are built, early warning mechanisms are put in place, and aid materials are procured and stored. Preparedness is proactive and the most essential phase. It serves as a safety net during a disaster and mitigates the risk.
  • Disaster Response – starts with the materialization of the disaster. The effectiveness of this stage relies on targeted rescue efforts and appropriate distribution of relief supplies as well as the sufficiency of the aid personnel. The crucial part of disaster response is its rapidity.
  • Reconstruction & Restoration – onsets after the response phase and is traditionally the longest. Reconstruction and restoration efforts aim to normalize lives where societies can transition back to self-sufficiency.

Many argue that the effectiveness of an emergency supply chain heavily relies on the ability to build strong relationships with suppliers, potential partners, as well as the community. Humanitarian organizations must seek compatible collaborators with complementary capabilities in terms of personnel expertise, technology, transportation capacity, location, etc. Another crucial point is related to the adoption of technology. Intelligent supply chain systems and data collection and analytics capabilities can greatly facilitate the delivery of aid supplies and enhance the effectiveness and timeliness of emergency relief.

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