For the past 15 years, the American Logistics Aid Network has been on the front lines of nearly every major catastrophe the world has endured. Better known as ALAN, this consortium of transportation companies, third-party service providers, and warehouse operators helps coordinate the logistics community’s response in times of crisis.
Covid-19 has presented a slightly different agenda from the earthquakes, tornados, and famines that the members of ALAN typically address. But as Executive Director Kathy Fulton explains, it’s just another moment for the heroes of the supply chain to shine.
Q: Can you describe the work of ALAN?
A: ALAN works with businesses, nonprofits, and government to harness logistics knowledge, expertise, and resources to serve communities that have been affected by crisis. We do that in a variety of ways. We work with nonprofit organizations to help them find pro bono transportation and material handling equipment. We work with businesses that want to help but may not otherwise have an outlet to do so.
We also provide businesses with information about what’s happening in the affected area. And we work with government entities to help them better understand how business is operating and what’s happening with freight flows and the transportation sector. Government entities then have a better idea of what their response should be. That is what we do. We’re saving lives through logistics.
Q: ALAN was created in response to infrastructure failures in a time of critical need. Can you describe what took place?
A: Sure. Hurricane Katrina brought some unique logistical challenges when it slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005. Although relief supplies came pouring in from across the country, there were problems getting them into the survivors’ hands. People were hungry and couldn’t get what they needed because either businesses or government couldn’t get the necessary logistics in place.
So, at the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals’ (CSCMP) annual conference that year, a group got together and said, “Look, we do this year-round. We move products literally around the world every single day. It seems like we ought to be able to use our knowledge and expertise to help solve these challenges.”
That was really the birth of ALAN, which started out as a consortium of 13 industry and trade associations. Today, that’s grown to somewhere north of 30 organizations that we work with on an ongoing basis.
Q: What part of the supply chain do they cover?
A: Everything. We work with everyone from manufacturers through operations and supply chain management and on to the transportation and broker community.
And there are some nontraditional associations we partner with, like the moving and storage industry and the bottled water association because they have logistics assets and requirements. We work to provide the logistics behind the basic things that are needed in any disaster, like food, water, shelter, and medicine.
Q: So unlike a traditional relief organization, you’re not raising funds to buy supplies and ship them. You’re more of a matchmaker that connects relief organizations in need of services or equipment with companies that can fill those needs?
A: Yes, that’s right. The model doesn’t always make sense to people who take a more traditional view of humanitarian relief work because we’re not directly putting products on trucks. We are helping to put somebody else’s product on a truck or in a warehouse.
So we are not procuring things like supplies or equipment. We are literally finding people who need resources, finding people who have these resources, and making an introduction and letting that relationship go from there.
Q: ALAN usually mobilizes in response to disasters in a localized area. In the case of Covid-19, it’s a worldwide event. How is your role different now?
A: Sometime in January and February, even before the coronavirus outbreak reached the U.S., we realized our role had changed because this is not geographically concentrated. It’s not like a storm in the Southeast United States or a tornado that only affects a couple of communities. This is everybody all at once.
The geographic scale of what we’re doing right now across the nation is new for us. But the types of requests are very similar to what we see in any other event—nourishment, hydration, medical care, and shelter. Those are the things people need. Those don’t go away. In fact, some of those things are amplified.
For example, we work with a lot of food banks. Some of those organizations saw a two, three, four, or five-hundred percent increase in requests. That requires additional transportation to move supplies to the warehouse. We’re also getting requests for support for last-mile deliveries. Again, the scale is increased, the intensity is increased, but they’re still the same types of requests that we’ve been seeing for 15 years.
Q: It is a daunting task with all the needs that are there.
A: Just the pace is interesting. It hasn’t slowed down, honestly. Businesses have figured out how to keep toilet paper and other staples on retail shelves for the most part. But the unemployment numbers are staggering, and that’s causing more strain for our primary partners in the nonprofit community.
Q: Have you noticed any particular problems or resource shortages?
A: Right now, there is plenty of available capacity in the transportation networks. The problem is, it may be too much capacity. We are starting to see smaller fleets parking their trucks. The concern is that if we lose those trucks, will we have enough capacity to respond if there’s another major shock?
Another potential trouble spot is the availability of volunteers within the humanitarian space. A lot of the people who volunteer are at higher risk of contracting Covid-19. Nonprofits are having to look for new and unique ways to run their operations because they don’t have that consistent level of volunteers that they’re accustomed to.
Q: We are recognizing heroes of the supply chain in this issue. Could you give us some examples of companies that have gone above and beyond in this time of crisis?
A: Everyone, once they understood the problem, started to look at how they might be able to leverage their available resources. Whatever the core business, they began asking themselves what they could do to support the relief effort. So that means the chemical community and even distilleries have started manufacturing hand sanitizer, which I think is a really creative solution.
We’re also seeing companies whose transportation business has slowed and are looking for ways to keep their employees busy and who want to contribute. So they’re saying, “Look, we may not have commercial product to move right now, but we will help haul personal protective equipment or food or whatever it may be.”
The cool thing about it is the logistics community is right there at the forefront. Many are being hit hard for a variety of reasons, but they are stepping up and serving.
Q: With so many people out of work, food banks serve a critical need right now. Are you seeing demand for material handling equipment like conveyors, forklifts, and racking to help food banks handle the surge in volume?
A: Yes. We’ve gotten requests for conveyors and supplies as well as boxes and stuff like that to package food in. A lot of those requests are for equipment that’s easy to install, such as gravity-feed conveyor, as well as anything to increase throughput, especially when you have a limited workforce and more volunteers.
Q: I’m sure there are people with supply chains skills and assets out there who want to help. How can they find out what’s needed?
A: They can always visit our website, www.alanaid.org. We’ve posted a list of needs there, and we keep it up to date. Or they can just call us.
The other thing is, if they don’t see a request that fits with what they want to offer, let us know anyway. There is a way to contact us on the website with those kinds of offers. We work to match them with someone with a corresponding need.
Q: If someone doesn’t have services or equipment to offer, can they make a cash donation?
A: Yes, absolutely. We operate on a small budget, and that budget has been strained like everyone else’s because of the Covid-19 response. People who want to support us financially can donate through our website. Those funds help us cover our expenses for technology and all of the other things that allow us to coordinate more effectively.
Q: Although the country is reopening, it will still take some time to get back to normal, especially with all the job losses. What do you expect to be the biggest needs for the next few months?
A: Right now, we’re seeing a lot of requests for transportation service—someone to haul the food from the field to the food bank and out to the people who need it. That is definitely going to continue as we go through the summer. We have enough food and we can process enough food, but there are some kinks in the processing supply chain.
Another challenge is that states have different policies for reopening, and those policies can vary from county to county. It can be difficult for someone operating a supply chain to navigate all of the different policy restrictions. So we’ve created a map that shows all of those policy restrictions by county. You can go to www.alanaid.org/map and request access. We have an incredible team of volunteers who are updating it on an ongoing basis. Every time a policy changes, they are making that update, and you can see it there live and in living color.
Q: Are there any lessons we’ve learned from the first wave that could be applied to future waves should there be any?
A: Yes. One of the really cool things about my job is that I have a front row seat to the crisis response. We convene with all of the associations we partner with once a week and talk about problems that affect all of the members.
The policies and the internal ways in which companies are protecting their employees had to be developed in real time and some are here to stay. I would consider all of that part of the lessons learned and lessons applied. I think we also learned from countries that dealt with this before us and have helped shape the response in the U.S.
The biggest thing is that it’s not just during times of crisis that supply chain folks are heroes. However, it often takes a disaster to make people aware of the critical role of the forklift operator or the truck driver in making sure they have the food and the water and the medical care they need every day. It is really cool to see that they’re being recognized now. They have always been heroes, but now the rest of the world knows it.