Engineering Management in Humanitarian Logistics

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As communities, worldwide face threats from climate change and associated public health hazards, the field of humanitarian logistics is evolving. The design parachute approach is increasingly considered ineffective in meeting long-term goals. It is no longer enough to fly in expertise and labor in response to crises in areas that may not have had standard building codes and other knowledge resources before the disaster struck. What expectations should forward-looking engineering leaders have instead?

The Role of Engineering Managers During Natural Disasters and Emergencies

To rebuild a community or city that has been shattered by a natural disaster, it’s necessary to marshal whatever resources are native to the community. This means not only seeking out local resources for construction and design but also using local labor whenever possible to complete fit-for-purpose rebuilds.

Engineering managers should consider:

  • Materials, construction methods, and architectural styles prioritized in the community
  • Availability of local contractors with insight into the political and professional landscape
  • How displaced people can be safely and effectively leveraged in the effort
  • How technical and logistical knowledge can be imparted respectfully

Project management remains the foundation of the engineering manager’s role — he or she must recognize the available resources and allocate them to reach particular goals within budget and on time. However, it is also important to help the community heal by providing it with long-term assets to be resilient in the face of future crisis.

Engineering managers should conduct a “deep dive” root cause analysis of the impact of disasters to inform their future decisions. By collaborating with local experts, it is possible to discover points where construction and processes can be improved. “Teardown and rebuild” should be augmented by genuine community outreach and sharing of best practices.

Methods Engineering Managers Use in Delivering and Warehousing Supplies

In any humanitarian logistics situation, prompt and effective supply delivery is crucial. Waste will occur rapidly if supplies are not delivered on time. There is also always the potential for further disaster-related damage or diversion of assets. Planning, implementing, and controlling the flow of goods early in the crisis is crucial to mitigating the humanitarian cost.
The engineering manager is one stakeholder of many who can influence the delivery and distribution of supplies after a crisis. Afflicted areas can remain in “crisis mode” for weeks or months after the disaster. The engineer’s chief roles include defining rebuilding needs on both immediate and mid-term levels, coordinating communication, and advocating.

Integrated operation is an important concept in controlling and stockpiling supplies for the duration of rebuilding. In this approach, route selection, facility location, and resource allocation are combined into a cohesive, systemic element of the humanitarian logistics supply chain.

Where a suitable facility and transport resources are available, the engineering manager should develop a detailed plan around these factors and communicate it to the internal and external stakeholders. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are typically in the best position to support and act on logistics best practices. They may also be able to provide additional insight, supply chain optimization, or security.

A central command center and a clear communication plan are both essential to ensuring supplies are maintained and used efficiently. As rebuilding efforts acquire more structure, regular reporting should extend not only to NGO actors and other reconstruction sponsors, but also to the various levels of the host government and, where practical, to the community at large.

Using Engineering to Reduce the Threat and Cost of Natural Disasters

The recent past holds many examples of engineering managers helping disaster-hit communities become more resilient and confident in the face of future challenges. Following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, engineers from around the world collaborated on new disaster alert systems and flood mitigation tactics.

After New Orleans was flooded with the 2005 levee failure, improved inspection and communication approaches were instituted within the Army Corps of Engineers, which some critics believed had overlooked key warning signs. This served as an important lesson: Even the most advanced engineering requires coordination and a proactive mindset.

With the right approaches, even the most severe disaster can impart lessons that will make it easier to reduce the human and financial toll of future crises. Engineers have a central role to play not only in rebuilding but also as advocates for risk mitigation.

Engineers can contribute in the following ways:

  • Development of safety codes and standards to improve response to local hazards
  • Design and construction of disaster-specific risk mitigation infrastructure
  • Training and mentoring local personnel to apply best practices and become leaders
  • Continuing advocacy and person-to-person diplomacy throughout the reconstruction

Many disasters are unavoidable. However, engineering managers have an essential role in recovery and mitigation. They not only build infrastructure but also help build communities.

Learn More

Ohio University offers an advanced degree program for engineers who want to become leaders without losing their foundation in engineering. Our online Master of Engineering Management focuses on leadership and management skills and their direct relationship to engineering process improvement, project management, effective communication, and innovative solutions.


Engineering and Technology, “Disaster relief: humanitarian architecture for post-disaster shelter”
Springer, “Chapter 2: Humanitarian Logistics and Supply Chain Management” 
Fritz Institute, “Key Performance Indicators in Humanitarian Logistics”
Science Direct, “Analyzing Transporation and Distribution in Emergency Humanitarian Logistics” 
FEMA (Department of Homeland Security, “Engineering Contribution to the Field of Emergency Management”
Georgia Tech, “What we’ve learned, 10 years after the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 250,000 people”
The New York Times, “Decade After Katrina, Pointing Fingers More Firmly at Army Corps”