Supply chains rely on many moving parts in order to be effective. But when ensuring that supplies and aid reach disaster areas efficiently, there are even more factors to consider.
The saying goes that you should always expect the unexpected — and there are few situations where this advice is more pertinent than in disaster relief logistics.
In times of crisis, disaster relief efforts rely on a complex supply chain network and inventory management in order to procure and transport resources to those in need. While a commercial supply chain is dependent on a number of similar processes — such as production, supply, warehousing, and distribution — disaster relief operations have other important factors that need to be taken into account. These can include the type of disaster, the damage done to infrastructure, the ability to reach affected areas, the equipment and personnel available, and resource constraints.
Because many types of disasters either occur unexpectedly or with an intensity that is hard to predict, it’s vital to rely on a resilient and adaptable supply chain. In this way, nonprofits and other charitable organizations are poised to respond efficiently when disaster strikes.
The Challenges Facing Disaster Relief Supply Chains
Being able to respond quickly is an important factor in the effectiveness of disaster relief efforts. One of the biggest challenges that supply chain managers face is storing materials in locations that are both convenient and cost-effective. In many cases, taking advantage of data collection technology can help streamline inventory management. This includes storing and retrieving goods and equipment from warehouses and ensuring the materials can be transported as quickly as possible.
For instance, the nonprofit Convoy of Hope once relied on time-consuming spreadsheets to keep track of the food, water, and other emergency supplies it sent to people in need. Now, with the help of an adaptable warehouse management system (WMS), the humanitarian organization is able to maintain real-time inventory control and respond rapidly to any situation that arises. This solution has also enabled Convoy of Hope to increase inbound and outbound product distribution by 40 percent in the past three years.
Maintaining effective lines of communication between aid partners and organizations is another essential element of disaster relief supply chain management — especially when supplies are being sent internationally. Clearing customs can have a big impact on the overall effectiveness of transportation logistics, so it’s important to keep all stakeholders in the loop when it comes to delays and changing regulations.
Incorporating technology like mobile devices and cloud-based applications allows supply chain managers to quickly share and access data from anywhere in the world. This communication technology provides immense benefits for disaster relief efforts, especially in hard-to-reach areas where a wired connection might not be possible. Having this visibility across the supply chain, including inventory visibility, allows organizations to recruit and staff volunteers at the appropriate time and place. More importantly, these technologies allow organizations to communicate with other organization and local agencies to coordinate and broadcast the availability of these resources. This helps vital resources reach donors and facilities with the greatest need or time sensitivities.
Finally, remaining flexible when facing limiting environmental conditions is key to maintaining an efficient disaster relief supply chain. In areas where storage space is hard to come by, out-of-the-box solutions — like housing donated materials in trailers in a parking lot in lieu of a more formal warehouse location — may be necessary.
Supply Chain Management and the Role of Volunteers
Disaster relief logistics rely heavily on volunteers as a primary labor source. While volunteers are indispensable to maintaining the supply chain, many organizations are looking to increase the amount of aid they’re able to provide by enhancing the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of their operations. Technology can assist here, as well. In addition to helping manage the flow of goods and supplies, mobile applications and cloud-based tech provide faster and more accessible training so that volunteers can be better prepared to help.
Furthermore, because volunteers aren’t paid, they have different needs than salaried employees. For this reason, being attentive to the preferences and concerns of volunteers is vital. This means placing additional emphasis on their training experience and ensuring that they are able to learn and access relevant software and tools.
In addition to disaster relief volunteers, nonprofit organizations also have their donors to consider. Donors want to know that their money, food, and other supplies are being used effectively, which is why maintaining supply chain transparency is essential. Communicating clearly about where supplies are being allocated — and why — goes a long way toward both demonstrating responsible supply chain management and maintaining visibility across an organization. This helps ensure the availability of future donations when the next disaster strikes.
The Necessity of a Resilient Supply Chain
Disasters are difficult to plan for — a fact that only underscores the importance of agile and flexible supply chains in relief efforts. But even though disasters can be hard to predict or anticipate, there are steps that supply chain and inventory management providers can take to be ready to spring into action.
One step is to build a knowledge base of the supplies that are available in disaster areas, as well as what supplies were required in previous disaster situations. This data — paired with the consistent support that technological developments provide — will help relief organizations, supply chain managers, and workers on the ground access the right tools to communicate, transport supplies, and provide accurate reports more efficiently.