COVID-19 Disaster Response: On the Front Lines of a Pandemic

For decades, WSP USA has deployed logistics management and emergency response teams to help communities recover from natural and man-made disasters. Those teams are now adapting to serve the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When natural events like hurricanes, earthquakes or floods, or man-made catastrophes like terrorist attacks or threats, strike the U.S., WSP USA quickly mobilizes its emergency management teams, who support the response, recovery and restoration efforts.

But in the years WSP has provided logistics and inspection services to the federal government, no one involved has witnessed or experienced anything on the scale and length of impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic. While it enters unchartered ground, WSP is adapting its response to this critical, often invisible, health risk – made further challenging by the need for sustained social distancing.

Can it be done effectively?

“Given the nature and severity of the pandemic and especially with the U.S. now largely forced to work from home, the role, means, methods and perspective of WSP’s emergency management and disaster response team has had to adapt,” said Tom Lewis, president of federal programs and logistics at WSP.

The emergency management team is served by the WSP logistics program management office (PMO) operating in Exton, Pennsylvania. Typically, WSP manages client requests across the U.S. from this location and serves as our company’s emergency operations center (EOC) where a large percentage of our logistics support team is physically located.

For the COVID-19 response, WSP is using a virtual EOC, with dozens of PMO support professionals working from home for their safety and for the safety of those they assist.

“The role of the EOC team is to get our clients whatever they need in times of emergencies and disasters,” Lewis said. “This includes personnel, equipment, supplies, and services of all kinds either directly from WSP across all sectors and services, or through our vast network of pre-placed vendors and service partners.”

Familiar Cadence

WSP has been providing services nationally to the U.S. Postal Service; to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers through its regional divisions and districts; and to state agencies for emergency management and related services in Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, Virginia and Delaware, as well as New York City, Washington, D.C. and several counties.

“WSP staff and managers are out in the field as well as embedded in state and local EOCs, warehouses, client facilities and other locations that are deemed critical by our clients,” said Vince Ricevuto, senior vice president of federal programs and logistics at WSP. “This work is around-the-clock, 24/7, by its very nature.”

In the case of COVID-19 it has been this way for almost a month and will likely continue for weeks or even months into the future, until the pandemic subsides.

“This cadence and unknown duration are typical for major emergencies and disasters, and require a high degree of composure, resourcefulness, agility, professionalism, energy, patience and stamina,” Lewis said.

The nationwide, long-duration impact of COVID-19 has crippled many of the supply chains for necessary items, such as personal protective equipment. At times, this has put a strain on relationships between states, and between states and the federal government, as they struggle to protect their citizens.

“Normally when there is a crisis, the unimpacted states are able to help the impacted states, and the Federal government is able to coordinate everything under the National Response Framework (NRF),” Lewis said.

“The biggest difference between this and other disasters is the unknown,” Ricevuto added. “How long will this go? Who might have the virus? Do we have enough protection? How do you know what is contaminated/compromised? How do you know when you have done enough? More traditional disasters like hurricanes, tornados, floods and earthquakes impact a more defined geography, and the bulk of the response actually happens in the days and weeks after the impact.”

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©WSP USA

WSP USA workers are disinfected during a recent facility cleaning event.

Meeting Demand

One of the biggest challenges has been with the management of supply chains. Travel restrictions, lodging issues, and limited high-demand supplies have taken their toll on everyone, including the WSP team working to help those agencies.

“State, local, commercial and federal entities are all asking for the same assets nationally, at the same time,” Ricevuto said. “These are all factors that can impede the delivery on a particular request.”

As long as stay-at-home orders remain in effect, Lewis expects demand to increase for supplies, facility decontamination services, and other services critical for essential clients to continue to operate.

“This means that we must continue to reach out to all regions and businesses within WSP for support, at least to get us through the peak,” he said. “As things gradually level out, hopefully it will be easier for our team to handle the ongoing demands.”

He realizes the need to prepare for the potential onset of a natural disaster before the pandemic is resolved.

“If we have an active hurricane season this year, it may be a ‘no rest for the weary’ situation,” Lewis said. “We will prepare for the worst, hope for the best; but it’s good to know that we can rely on others in WSP to support us and help our clients respond and recover.”

Critical Communication

With teams of people working remotely, active and constant communication is critical and must be fast and expected at any time, any day, anywhere.

“No assignment or request is considered too big, too little, too routine or too complex,” Lewis said. “‘As fast as you can’ is always the schedule requirement.”

WSP is making extensive use of mobile devices and communications, including satellite communication devices when traditional mobile and land-based telecommunication systems are down.

The firm has developed and implemented barcoding and an automated asset management procurement tracking system that allows the team to easily upload, track, approve and follow along the supply chain as goods and services are delivered to clients. Such systems can also be used to track and marry to deployed labor.

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©WSP USA

WSP USA workers observe safe social distancing practices during a recent South Carolina warehousing operation.

Safety First

Currently, more than 100 people from WSP’s federal programs and logistics team are actively engaged in supporting COVID-19 activities. There are also dozens of people in other areas involved in varying capacities, including a buildings team focused on health care facility management, a team responsible for hazardous materials, and regional managers within the transportation business on alert to maintain safe transportation routes.

For WSP and its clients, Ricevuto said the first order is “safety first. Always.”

“Many of us, and especially our field leaders and supervisors, have trained to participate in potentially hazardous conditions,” he said. “We use the principals of this training, experience and professionalism to execute any action that may be necessary in these times.”

“We also must continually mentor and teach those who are less experienced and more likely to be apprehensive and anxious due to lack of experience,” Lewis added. “A big thing that gets people through any anxiety is the knowledge of how important our work is to our clients and communities in times of greatest crisis and need.”

Every day provides experiences that are educating the team about the response, providing information that is improving the response nationwide.

“We continue to cross-connect and cross-train WSP personnel across all sectors and regions to be able to wear multiple hats in their actions so that we are as flexible as an organizational workforce as possible,” Ricevuto said. “This breadth, depth, and collaboration across WSP is our greatest asset as a company. This collaboration process will also enable WSP to visibly increase our resource bandwidth as necessary.”

Lewis reflected on his thoughts about the WSP team and the work they have done during this crisis.

“This work is certainly not for everybody,” he said. “But for those of us who do it, the feeling of teamwork, importance and helpfulness no matter what the nature of the requests and services in times of need, is what gets us all through, and keeps us coming back.”

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