The BP oil spill and private sector disaster preparedness

June 14th, 2010

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Nearly two months into the devastating British Petroleum oil spill, the incident has released a public and political flood of anger and pointed questions regarding the responsibility of private entities to take on effective disaster preparedness, particularly when the consequences of a disaster have widespread public ramifications.

Involving the private sector in disaster preparedness is not a new idea. Post-9/11 and post-Hurricane Katrina attitudes about both the private sector’s vulnerability to disasters, as well as its ability to aid and affect disasters, led to several initiatives intended to engage the private sector in disaster preparedness and response .

In 2007, Congress ordered the creation of a voluntary set of standards for businesses to prepare for a national disaster, and set a 210-day deadline for implementation. The Voluntary Private Sector Preparedness Accreditation and Certification Program (PS-Prep) – required by Section 901 of the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 — remains unimplemented, despite the long past due deadline. The tragedy of the BP oil spill has prompted some lawmakers to renew the call for private sector preparedness, and for PS-Prep get off the ground.

Last week, the chairmen of the Senate and House Homeland Security Committees urged the Department of Homeland Security to step up its implementation of PS-Prep to help private sector companies develop preparedness, response, and business continuity plans.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) sent a letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, lamenting that the program, to date, “still has neither been implemented, nor promoted, as required by the law.” The lawmakers noted that the private sector owns 85 percent of the nation’s critical infrastructure, and as such, “private sector preparedness is a necessity, not a luxury.”

The necessity of private sector preparedness also encompasses private sector participation in public preparedness – through partnerships with state and local entities. Not only does the private sector need to be prepared to respond to disasters specific to their own functions (e.g., private oil companies and oil spills), the private sector is a critical player in effective response to disasters in general. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Grant (RCPG) Program in FEMA Region III, partially(i) aimed at engaging the private sector in disaster preparedness at state and local levels, is one initiative that has gotten off the ground.

The Maryland Emergency Management Agency has partnered with CHHS to implement its portion of the grant program, called Project 5: Analysis & Partnerships. The project goal is to bring together public, private and non-governmental organization sector partners to resolve state and regional resource needs during an emergency. One of Maryland’s goals is to analyze existing state agency resources, determine shortfalls, and provide solutions for filling those gaps through partnerships with private and non-profit sectors.

Project 5 is built on the premise that partnerships developed before a disaster strikes are key to the region’s short and long-term response and recovery. As gaps are identified, CHHS is working to build partnerships between the public and private sector to bridge those gaps with non-binding agreements about donated products, services, or subject matter expertise.

The initiative to form public-private partnerships for disaster preparedness is about forging relationships before a disaster strikes, bridging the gap between private and public disaster response that has seemingly pervaded the BP oil spill.

As CHHS works with each potential private partner to discuss opportunities to serve the community through disaster assistance, the BP oil spill continues to serve as a tragic reminder of the necessity of engaging private partners in the national push for disaster preparedness – “as a necessity, not a luxury.”

i. All other RCPG projects do not necessarily involve the private sector.

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