During the past several years, the Defense Logistics Agency’s Whole of Government Division has become other federal agencies’ provider of choice for supporting nationwide crisis response.
The Stafford Act, designed to bring orderly federal assistance to state and local governments following natural disasters, governs the WOG team’s support.
The Office of the Secretary of Defense grants DLA authority to support the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster-response mission. The support is executed through an interagency agreement. DLA may also receive execution orders through U.S. Northern Command to provide additional disaster-response resources in support of a combined joint task force.
WOG Division Chief Stephen Dubernas described taking over his position almost two years ago as “drinking from a fire hose.” His predecessor, David Kless, warned Dubernas to expect hurricanes in 2018.
“And wouldn’t you know, we had three major hurricanes,” Dubernas said. “You learn pretty fast from a significant emotional event like that.”
Eyes on the Hurricanes
Dubernas noted the division’s biggest efforts in 2018 were similar to those of the previous year; hurricanes were a huge focus area.
In 2017, three back-to-back Category 4 hurricanes — Harvey, Irma and Maria — tested the mettle of the WOG team like nothing since Hurricane Matthew in 2012.
“We’ve really become a learning organization when responding to hurricanes,” Dubernas said. “After the 2017 season, obviously, we’ve come up with a playbook of lessons learned.”
The frequency and duration of hurricanes in the last two years has been historically unprecedented, Dubernas said. Three additional back-to-back hurricanes hit in the fall of 2018.
One of the wettest storms on record, Hurricane Florence developed in mid-September, making landfall over the Carolinas Sept. 14. DLA Troop Support sprang into action, providing generators; meals, ready-to-eat; flotation devices; gloves and waders.
Hurricane Michael then hit the Florida panhandle Oct. 10 as a deadly Category 4 storm. It was one of the strongest to strike Florida in a century and the third-strongest storm to hit the U.S., with winds up to 155 mph in Florida and Georgia. Again, DLA partnered with FEMA to provide vital supplies and assistance.
The following month, Super Typhoon Yutu, the strongest storm on record ever to hit a U.S. territory, devastated the Northern Mariana Islands in Guam.
“It was one of our first large-scale responses out in the Pacific … and that was actually a Category 5 [with winds] over 180 mph,” Dubernas said.
WOG Division Deputy Chief Chris Stephens said the urgency of these real-world events forced the division to put some of its plans into action.
“What [Dubernas] was able to lead us through were support enhancements from the drawing board to actual execution,” he said. “There were opportunities to refine our pre-scripted mission assignments, to make sure our customers knew there were some refined packages and different material as well as services we could provide them.”
Expertise on Hand
After the 2017 and 2018 storms, pre-scripted mission assignments were added to response plans to leverage products and services from DLA Disposition Services, DLA Energy and DLA Troop Support.
“We put a pre-scripted mission assignment together that allows us to draw resources from across DLA … down to the National Response Coordination Center in FEMA headquarters downtown in Washington, D.C.,” Dubernas said.
Some MSCs also placed personnel at the NRCC to reduce response time. Having supply-chain representatives at the ready ensures more accurate communication about requirements, Dubernas said.
“It’s a pretty specific skill, but a lot of it is what these folks do on a daily basis with their customer accounts,” he said. “You’re defining a requirement, understanding DLA supply-chain capabilities and making sure that those requirements … get through the [Agency Synchronization Operations Center] out to those supply centers with a valid required delivery date.”
That can be more complex than it seems, Stephens noted.
“When we respond, we’re serving a handful of masters,” he said. “We’ve got an agreement with [the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] to do certain things, we’ve got an agreement with FEMA to do certain things, and then we’re working closely with USNORTHCOM, who’s leading the joint task force.”
Dubernas said it’s critical that DLA representatives remain on top of customers’ ever-changing needs and be aware of the availability of supplies.
“By the time you see something spinning up off the coast of Africa with potential landfall in the U.S., you get those 48 ‘golden hours’ to get the right expertise,” he said. DLA works around the clock to anticipate needs and then “get them in the hands of the right people at each one of those supply chains in a fashion that can be translated to the industrial base, where you’re getting that material moving in the right direction.”
And DLA must act quickly, Dubernas continued.
“We’ve got to have that stuff in hours,” he said. “Success is measured in minutes, not days, when you’ve got major hurricanes heading to the continental U.S. or one of our territories.”
Trial by Fire
The WOG division also supports the government’s response to other disasters, such as the wildfires that plague northern California. Last year was one of the deadliest fire seasons ever, with more than 18,000 structures burned and at least 88 people dead.
“Between the California wildfires and just all the range fires out west, we did about $34 billion in total support,” Dubernas said. “But … we see less volume and requirements come from California just because of the size and magnitude of the state-level response.”
DLA provided personal protective equipment, safety gear, and fire protectant pants and chaps to the U.S. Forest Service.
“We’re talking about 43 lines of critical items that the Forest Service uses and then over 300 normal [National Stock Number] usage items,” he said.
The WOG team also practices its response in at least two exercises per year with FEMA and USACE.
“We’ve been so engaged in contingency operations that FEMA’s actually canceled a few exercises,” Dubernas said. “When it comes down to it, it’s just a decision on utility — supporting contingencies is always going to trump an exercise.”
The WOG team is still completing operations in the aftermath of the most recent storms in Guam and Puerto Rico. In January, DLA provided some of the final barrier and construction material to repair the infrastructure in Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, Dubernas said.
“In Puerto Rico, we were called on to do support we had never done — the rebuild of a major electrical grid,” he said, noting that there are 34 million pieces of electrical equipment engineered for that particular grid.
In the future, DLA will be able to use the same menu of services and material to support reconstruction of electrical grids in other locations. Such an effort would still require coordination though.
“We’ll send a [liaison officer] to USACE to develop generator requirements, and then we’ve got a part of the rapid deployment teams that will link up with the joint task force,” Stephens said. “Then we’ve got a cadre of folks from DLA Troop Support to include Dr. Dubernas’ staff downtown sitting at the FEMA response center.
“At the end of the day, we’re basically leveraging relationships. The SME that we brought in from DLA Troop Support knows all the players back [there] and can make stuff happen much faster,” he continued, adding that some of DLA’s “best and brightest” employees are assigned to the WOG Division.
The WOG support DLA provides is being viewed as a best practice at the highest levels of the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Dubernas said.
“We’re using our economies of scale, which are large food contracts and large generator contracts, to get bulk buying discounts for our WOG partners,” he said.
Dubernas said in terms of reform, DLA is reducing the burden on these other agencies and providing services at a wholesale discount.
“We’re doing that with big partners such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, and we’re providing support through our electronic catalog,” Dubernas said. “We’re looking for partners to fit into our portfolio without a lot of tailored logistics supply solutions.”
Dubernas said he expects DLA’s reputation as a partner for WOG support means more agencies will seek DLA’s help in the near future.
“I think you’ll see wholesale growth across the WOG portfolio,” Dubernas said. “DLA [is] being looked at as an interagency supply-chain provider in a lot of cases. The [DLA] director talks about support to the warfighter and the nation; I think the ‘and the nation’ part is going to grow.”
Expanded support may include additional products and services for the Army Corps of Engineers, in contingency and daily operations.
“After the Hurricane Maria response, total requirements and the total sales to [USACE] went up from $30 million to about $450 million,” Dubernas said.
Additional support to the Forest Service is also likely, as well as a partnership with the Coast Guard on uniforms, in which DLA Troop Support would provide distribution services similar to those it already provides to the military services. DLA is also likely to continue supporting southern border operations as it has already done with concertina wire, fencing and barrier material.
In all, the WOG budget has doubled since 2014, Stephens added.
“You can’t be everything to all people, which is unfortunate, but it’s a resources constraint,” he said. “Really, the name of the game is smart expansion.”