The snow was heavy even for Washington's Cascade Mountains, where 50 feet a year is not unusual. Back in late January, sections of the mountains received as much as five feet of snow over a five-day period. One result of the heavy snowfall was that highways across the mountains were impassable for several days. Interstate 90, one of the nation's major freight corridors, was closed at the Snoqualmie Pass as a result of the heavy snow and the resulting avalanche danger. Eventually, all three major east-west routes through the mountains had to be shut down.
Most of the time, such road closures and shipping delays are business as usual for truckers, but those particular delays were different. What made them unusual was the way Washington's state highway department directly informed carriers and shippers of current conditions and when they could expect to travel those roads again.
That high level of communication was the result of the Washington State Department of Transportation's decision to learn from the private sector about building resiliency into supply chains. The department worked closely with the Center for Transportation and Logistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to develop what the state agency calls its Freight System Resiliency Plan.
The plan's intent, according to a 2007 white paper written by researchers from MIT and managers of the Washington DOT's Freight Systems Division, is to complement emergency response by monitoring, managing, and controlling the state's transportation network assets while working with the private sector to improve the network's resiliency. "The transportation network should not be the bottleneck that is preventing economic recovery," the report's authors wrote. The benefits of the initiative are not limited to Washington's own highways; any government agency could use the multistep process to create a freight resiliency plan, they added.
Barbara Ivanov, director of the Washington DOT Freight Systems Division and one of the white paper's authors, says the idea of developing a freight resiliency plan grew out of a presentation on business resiliency she attended during a Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals annual conference. It's the right thing for her agency and others like it to do, she believes. "After Katrina, anyone in the public sector would have recognized that we have a deep responsibility to be prepared to help our citizens and our economies recover after significant disaster." Ivanov's co-authors were Chris Caplice and James B. Rice of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, and Elizabeth Stratton of the Freight Systems Division.
Ivanov's observation may be right, but public agencies' first responsibility in the wake of a disaster is to respond quickly to protect lives, and they don't always follow that up with facilitating economic recovery after the event. Yet there's good reason for them to get involved in post-disaster recovery. It is no secret that the economic costs of disruptions to freight movement can be substantial. For example, the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which destroyed portions of highways near Los Angeles, created 4,400 hours of truck delays for each day of reconstruction.
Give them what they want
Two-way communication is the linchpin of Washington's freight resiliency initiative. While interviews with carriers played a large part in developing the plan, Ivanov says, discussions with shippers were also important because they helped the agency understand what disruptions might mean for their businesses and what internal capabilities shippers have for recovery.
One of the most effective parts of the plan is a notification system for carriers and shippers. "They want different information than what the public wants and what the news media reports," Ivanov observes. The department created a freight listserv that initially had about 800 companies in the database. That increased to about 3,000 when flooding forced the state to close Route I-5 for four days in December.
The notification system quickly improved as the department learned more about what carriers and shippers needed. "They want predictive information," Ivanov says."They want to know if the highway will be closed until 8 p.m." Messages became shorter, for example, and included links to detour maps.
The researchers also consulted with other public agencies on how to coordinate emergency response with economic recovery efforts—before another disaster comes along. "A county sheriff has tremendous knowledge and expertise in first response, but he does not necessarily have a lot of information about global trade links," Ivanov notes. "The whole point is, you do not want to be meeting the fire chief when your house is burning. The time to know what to do is well in advance. Lots of work has to be done on that in identifying decision makers and identifying core customer needs."
The department has now moved to a second phase of research, focused on identifying the key freight corridors in the state and placing them into a geographic information system (GIS) database.