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After 20 plus years of doing conventional contracting, I have entered into the world of disaster contracting and the differences are many. I don’t like to use the word ‘conventional’ for all of the great places I’ve been and great programs I’ve supported, but leading a disaster contracting workforce is nevertheless different. We do quite a bit of preparatory work for something that hopefully will never happen. But invariably the call will come and we have no choice but to be ready. As my favorite leadership expert says, “When opportunity comes, it’s too late to prepare.” The same is true in disaster contracting and here are some things to keep in mind:
1) Preparing our workforce - Let’s just say you have 200 contracting personnel that have to be ready to deploy, yesterday. You, of course, compile and update regularly, a list of who can and who can’t deploy. Yes, every employee is an emergency manager but as the realities of life sneak into this scenario, not everyone can deploy. Then you have to get everyone trained on the nuances of disaster contracting and operating in environments that will be drastically different from a regular office setting. Oh, and by the way, you still have to train everyone on how to do conventional contracting. Preparation is key!
2) Pre-positioning of national contracts - One of the biggest activities we do in the “offseason,” if there is one, is negotiate and put into place national contracts. These national contracts become a critical piece in FEMA’s initial response phase. These vendors have the capabilities needed to respond anywhere and do so at a moment’s notice. Services and commodities such as ambulance and medical services, satellite airtime services, individual assistance, housing inspection services, and temporary housing obviously can’t be negotiated during a disaster. Ideally these efforts must be established in May prior to hurricane season which only gives us realistically from January to May to conduct a source selection. Having our COs maintain our acquisition milestone dates is a critical piece to mission success.
3) Transitioning to local business and local hiring – Under Section 307 of the Stafford Act, we are required to, expediently as possible, transition to local business sources for many efforts which may start out as national efforts. This legislation makes perfect sense. The best way to help an affected area return to some kind of normalcy is to award contracts to local businesses which in turn, will reinvigorate the local economy and that workforce. I have a small but effective unit called the Local Business Transition Team (LBTT). Their job is to go out and work with state and local officials to ensure that we are reaching the local business community and workforce, but again the question, when? Thirty, sixty, ninety days, when? Of course, falling back on my legal training, the answer is, it depends. Although some stakeholders would like that to happen yesterday, this is a dicey situation. First and foremost, we want to get in there with a quick response to start the long road to recovery. Our first thoughts are to the devastation and disruption to people’s lives and how we take a giant step, not a series of baby steps, to speed recovery. The storm hits hard, we counterpunch with the biggest and best contractors that we have in our arsenal. When things start to settle down a bit, when our big contractors start to get a handle on things, we work closely with Regional and other field counterparts to introduce our LBTTs and to commence rejuvenation of the local business base. As you might imagine, this is a delicate balance.
4) Communicating with regional and other disaster officials in the field - You might be thinking no-brainer here, but not doing this or doing it ineffectively could hamper the disaster response. When a disaster is declared and a Joint Field Office (JFO) is imminent, it is imperative that someone in my position correspond with the appropriate Regional Administrator, Support Chief and named FCOs (Federal Coordinating Officers). They have to know, immediately, that we have resources and are ready to go as soon as they give us the word. We don’t send COs out there blindly. This has to be a well-coordinated and communicated effort. I can honestly say this happened at least twice a day at the onset of Sandy. We continue to keep the communication channels open and active to this day.
5) Maintaining a balance, the upside of staying home - When disaster strikes, just about all personnel want to deploy and do what they can to help. This is a good thing. This is what draws people to my organization. This wonderful and worthy mission we have. What I have realized in my first big disaster response is there has to be a balance between personnel in the field and personnel at home who maintain the headquarters mission. You might think that we should be in the field but the reality is, we still need people at HQ who can carry on the every day tasks that every contracting officer knows happens during a fiscal year—contract renewals, disaster and non-disaster. We also still have internal and external stakeholders who come to us with requirements. Would you think that stops during a disaster? Think again. Most importantly, there has to be a contracting force back at HQ to assist contracting officers in the field and especially, a force back at HQ to relieve those in the field when the time comes. (This serves to not only give those returning from the field a break but also helps us give younger or newer contracting officers on-the-ground experience.)
This short article has apprised you of the tip of the iceberg. There are other challenges but this should be a good start to understanding some of the nuanced challenges faced by a leader of a disaster contracting force.
Francis C. Spampinato, DPA, CPCM , is the Chief Procurement Officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Homeland Security. His is also an Adjunct Faculty member in Public Procurement and Contract Management at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia in the Department of Urban Studies and Public Administration.He can be contacted by email at [email protected] and by telephone at (202) 646-3355.