John Lennon wrote "life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." Kathy Fulton, head of operations for the American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN), which matches logistics resources with the disaster-response needs of aid groups, may not have been making plans on Aug. 17, 2013. However, life intervened in a sudden and tragic way. Fulton was told that, the night before, her boss, John T. (Jock) Menzies, ALAN's charismatic co-founder, had fallen 200 feet from a malfunctioning cable car near his Annapolis, Md., home. Menzies, 69 and in otherwise fine health, died of his injuries the next day.
Amid her shock and grief, Fulton knew that, for the interim at least, she had been elevated to become the face of ALAN. She was committed to maintaining the core beliefs and principles that Menzies developed when ALAN was formed in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. A change of direction was not on the radar screen.
Fulton wasn't angling to be named permanent executive director, but this past September, ALAN's board appointed her to the post. She starts her first full year in the top job with formidable volunteer support. In September, Joel Anderson, the retired president and CEO of the International Warehouse Logistics Association (IWLA), joined ALAN to coordinate fundraising activities. At the same time, Felicia Alexander, a long-time business and nonprofit executive, came on board to expand ALAN's efforts within California.
Fulton spoke recently with Executive Editor Mark B. Solomon about her role, the state of global logistics humanitarian efforts, and her commitment to continue on the trail that Menzies blazed.
Q: When you joined ALAN in 2010, you were essentially "on loan" for one year from your IT position at Saddle Creek Logistics Services. At what point did you decide to remain with ALAN?
A: I was hooked from my first work volunteering in 2008, when I provided technology support during hurricanes Gustav and Ike. So, I was thrilled when [Saddle Creek President] Cliff Otto asked if I would like to work for ALAN. I think two simultaneous events solidified my view. At the ProMat show in March 2011, we exhibited a project to benefit the Greater Chicago Food Depository. We demonstrated how supply chain expertise was truly critical to humanitarian activities. The response from show attendees was overwhelmingly positive. Unfortunately, during the show, the Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident occurred. That really hit home, especially as we started to see the impact on supply chain activities due to the infrastructure damage, the information challenges, and the loss of life. As an "insider," it was humbling to watch it unfold. I recognized that there would always be a need for ALAN.
Q: What was the thinking behind bringing in Joel Anderson and Felicia Alexander?
A: Joel brings a unique network and passion to the organization. He will help us build a sustainable funding stream so ALAN has the financial support to continue its work. Because of Joel's deep understanding of how logistics providers work, he can ensure that not only are we looking to the right organizations to help meet disaster needs, but that we are also delivering the right disaster information and educational content to meet the needs of the business community.
Felicia is the first person we've signed up under our state liaison volunteer program. She has run her own business and served on nonprofit boards. That rare blend of perspectives is allowing us to bridge the gap between business and nonprofit activities. The liaison program is designed to expand our reach and help more organizations. Having local representation is critical to building relationships and quickly leveraging local capabilities that someone from another part of the country might not even know exist.
Q: The Ebola epidemic in West Africa is ALAN's first major test under your leadership. Can you describe the organization's response efforts, and what have you learned from this endeavor that can be applied to improve the group's future efforts?
A: The Ebola response activities are complex due to multiple modes of travel and nodes of origin/destination. To date, the air bridge has delivered over 650,000 pounds of personal protective equipment and medical supplies. Our role has been the coordination of U.S. ground logistics, as well as making introductions internationally for sources of temporary warehouse storage. Our association partners have generated great leads for sourcing the warehousing, transportation, and material handling equipment necessary to support this work.
It has also reminded us that disaster relief is a continuum and that interest wanes as media moves on to the next big story. But just because you don't hear about it doesn't mean support isn't still needed. Even now, we're receiving requests to help with cleanup activities from the flooding in Detroit earlier this year, recovery work after the 2013 tornadoes in Illinois, and even requests as homes are rebuilt from the destruction of Superstorm Sandy.
Q: Speaking of Sandy, we are at its two-year anniversary as we speak. Can you provide an update on where the recovery stands, the logistics community's involvement in it, and what ALAN has taken away from that experience?
A: Rebuilding efforts continue slowly due to a myriad of reasons, and logistics support remains a critical need. Nonprofit groups that provide donated labor for home rebuilding need to move and store materials and tools. Sandy taught us many things, but most importantly, it reminded us that relationships that are in place prior to a disaster are going to be the ones that get used.
Q: You take over a well-established organization. What is your strategic vision for ALAN? Where do you see the group, say, five years from now?
A: One of the first things ALAN's board did after Jock's passing was to review the vision and mission statements and to ask ourselves—who are we, who should we be, and how do we get there? Jock started a great deal of this work in 2012 and 2013, so it was really just pulling together all of the pieces. Our vision is to change the way people prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters. We want to help reduce not just the time it takes to get supplies to people who need them after a disaster, but to, as Jock often said, "wire the networks" so that the impact of the disaster itself is reduced. The more that we prepare together, the more that we understand each other's capabilities, and the more that we build the trust needed to work together, the more resistant we'll be to the effects of a disaster. I'd love to have an ALAN liaison volunteer in every state and an expert across every supply chain discipline. We've got some rebuilding to do, but we have committed volunteers, association partners, sponsors, and advisers to help us along the way.
Q: Give us a sense of the state of logistics relief aid today. Where have you seen the most progress? And where does more work need to be done?
A: Disaster relief in general is still a system of fragmented, independent responses. There is increased recognition that "together we can do more," but the mechanisms for communicating and coordinating the roles of each group are not yet well developed. People want to help—independently, corporately. However, because there isn't a way for the general public or even most businesses to plug in, people get frustrated and do their own thing.
We really see a need for distributed coordination of activities. That's the focus of our cross-sector disaster simulation programs. Each sector may still work independently, but if we can share information and resources, there is a much greater chance that disaster needs will not be duplicated or overlooked. There are lots of great ideas out there—we want to help bring together the people with those ideas and get the best ideas moved from theory to practice.