Prepositioned For Disaster – Lessons From Military Sealift Command

John Konrad
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January 30, 2010

From hurricanes to tsunami’s earthquakes, today’s levels of population growth coupled with global climate change is putting an increasing number of people at risk. What is not changing rapidly is the development and implementation of ideas to mitigate crisis.

What seems most promising is the idea that, rather than create new plans for new problems, borrow the ideas and resources from others. A good example of this is technology. Nearly two years ago we mentioned the use of Twitter to help locate victims and coordinate response efforts during crisis. Twitter already worked great for locating friends at nearby bars, so it was just a matter of rethinking it’s use as an emergency tool.

So what other systems are already in place to provide rapid support on a global scale? Specific to this blog… What maritime systems are already in place to provide rapid support on a global scale? In a post titled Urgent Solutions ~ Fast, Flexible, Scalable, Now, Joost Bonsen suggests the use of continerized solutions to support relief efforts in Haiti. He writes:

I’ve written before about the usefulness of containerized infrastructure and floating infrastructure — e.g. hospital shipspower generation bargescontainerized health clinics, and more. Devastation in post-quake Port-au-Prince — and, btw, in other disaster-struck or war-ravaged recovery zones — demands that we invest heavily in ramping up and deploying many more of these urgent solutions, certainly as an essential part of rebuilding Haiti properly. Here’s further examples of fast, flexible, scalable, and re-deployable container-systems which are all needed now. First of all, water desalination and purification, for instance this HOH-USA unit…

While the idea has merit you must also consider the logistics involved in locating and transporting highly specialized containers. First, ships do not move at great speed and it takes time to load them. Second, finding containers designed for special missions and relocating them to a single port is a time consuming task regardless of the availability of a ship to put them on.

But the truth is that this idea is already being effectively implemented on a global scale by the US military in the form of prepositioned ships. For those unfamiliar with the program, propositioned vessels are commercial ships contracted by the military to sit idle at locations throughout the world. Although these ships rarely move, they are crewed with a full compliment of mariners and loaded down with all the items needed by troops engaged in conflict (Trucks, generators, food, desalination plants, medical supplies…) The thought being that, if a war breaks out, ships will be nearby and ready to supply the military at a moments notice.

If the idea works for the military, why couldn’t it work for humanitarian missions? I propose that, along with the Army and Navy, that the US Coast Guard be given a budget for prepositioning ships throughout the world. The cargo aboard these ships, however similar, would have a distinctly different mission… to be always ready so others might live.

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