Horror stories abound of warehouse management system (WMS) implementations that don't go as planned. From small functional breakdowns to full-blown failure, warehouse managers have had to cope with the unexpected when implementing or upgrading new technology.

If such failures can happen when it's your warehouse, your own trained warehouse workers handling familiar products with months of planning before the new system goes live, imagine setting up an ad hoc field operation responding to an outbreak of bird flu or a bioterror attack when lives are at stake, the goods coming in are controlled pharmaceuticals and there isn't a single trained warehouse worker or inventory control manager in sight. Those scenarios are very real for Kent Ware. He's manager for the immunization information system and vaccine warehouse for the Ohio Department of Health (ODH).

In the event of a public health incident, Ware must get pharmaceuticals to dispensing sites as quickly as possible following the protocol established by the Centers for Disease Control. Amidst the chaos of a potential epidemic, Ware's operation must identify the location and severity of demand and ensure product is delivered there. He will have to track who received what, how much of what product is needed, how much has already been supplied, what percent of the population is protected, and he'll have to do it all without impeding his ability to respond to other outbreaks in other geographic areas. And let's not forget, he may face infrastructure issues that include power and telecommunications disruptions.

Such a situation calls for the best warehouse management under the worst circumstances. At the core of Ware's operation is an off-the-shelf WMS solution and some careful and thorough planning.

Preparing for the worst
The type of disaster responses Ware must plan for mirror conventional warehouse management challenges, except more intense. As Carl Brewer, president of Integrated Warehouse Solutions (IWS, www.iws-irms.com), explains, you have to be able to see what you own—down to discrete quantities by location (inventory record accuracy). You have to know what you can get in (replenishment). And you have to share that information with users.

The added requirements for lot control to the stock keeping unit (SKU) level, including returns, and a channel for feedback are also covered. The feedback ( patient records in this case) can be critical because, as Ware points out, some of the vaccines may be new and it is necessary to know how people are reacting to the product and to track adverse events. That's where lot control and patient identity-must come together, Ware explains.

Following hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, emergency workers in the affected areas received bulk quantities of pharmaceuticals from the Strategic National Stockpile maintained by the Centers for Disease Control. Without a warehouse system, they weren't able to receive new product from multiple sites, track it, put it into kits and deploy it quickly. Patient records were difficult to maintain because data collected at the temporary sites where services were provided could not be put into a central database in a timely manner. A patient who left a dispensing center or who was evacuated to another part of the country could develop an adverse reaction and it would be impossible to link back to the specific lot and batch information on the drug that was dispensed.

The Strategic National Stockpile (www.bt.cdc.gov/stockpile/) provides states with critical medical supplies within 12 hours of a large-scale need. The initial push packs of up to 138 air cargo containers may come from one of 13 CDC stockpiles, says Brewer. States receive the "push packages" (or push packs) and deploy the pharmaceuticals, vaccines and medical supplies to the affected areas. After the initial response, more conventional supply lines start to phase in and a more diverse mix of goods may be inbound to the affected area. the state may begin receiving goods from other sources, such as direct shipments from manufacturers.

When the push packs arrive, the National Guard will most likely run the field "warehouse" operation. With everything operating at a "critical" level maintaining basic inventory management disciplines can be hard enough, getting thorough records on what product was distributed to which dispensing station and what was administered to which patient sounds almost impossible. Fortunately, it isn't.

Brewer's off-the-shelf warehouse management system is at the core of a field-deployable response tool. The first thing unpacked in the field is a fully operational warehouse system running a wireless network. It can be set up and functional in 12 minutes, says Brewer. Designed to be operated by a novice, the system picks up the file from the CDC recognizing all of the inventory that is inbound.

The warehousing and inventory control are the easy part, says Brewer. Understanding the underlying infrastructure of the state or region affected, the distribution-points and the needs mean that you can assume nothing. You could be standalone, unable to communicate with the network says Brewer.

As drugs are administered to patients, continues Ware, the lot numbers are scanned along with the magnetic stripe on the patient'sdriver's license or state identification-card. Data will be entered about what the patient received, even whether it went into the right or left arm. If a network connection isn't available, the data can be collected on a jump drive and taken to a command center that has cellular or satellite communications and Internet access and sent to the state to be processed.

On the front lines, it's a simple user interface, explains Ware. "It's just-in-time training. You give the person a wireless scanning gun, tell them they're in charge of receiving, and this is what you do. It takes two minutes to learn the process."

As the epidemic evolves, the data are all there and the operation can receive, kit, pick, pack and distribute goods. For a 24-hour operation, they would need a minimum of 40 people to set up, unload trucks and repackage materials for deployment, says Ware.

But how do you connect all of this to demand? Any manufacturer or retailer knows how quickly forecasts get outdated, and an epidemic is hardly a normal situation. The Ohio Department of Health doesn't want to send vaccines to immunize a population of 500,000 into a township with a total population of 5,000. Ware explains that the State also doesn't need to send enough vaccine to immunize an entire community when an outbreak is small or has been contained.

To model demand ODH uses a geographic information system (GIS) based public health analysis network to identify sites and facilities. Vaccines and materials can flow to the appropriate sites in appropriate quantities to meet changing needs and the warehouse management system can track the flow.

At the dispensing sites, local health authorities use the Secure Wireless Inventory and Pharmaceutical Emergency Response System (SWIPERS) to scan the vaccine and record lot numbers and other data. When an outbreak is controlled or the crisis has passed, the inventory records are important in tracking down the pharmaceuticals that must be returned.

Brewer points out that one of the lessons from hurricanes Katrina and Rita was that a lot of equipment was shipped into the disaster area but could not be located after the crisis had passed. Bigticket items like generators went out but didn't come back. The design of the warehouse system supporting the ODH response ensures that controlled pharmaceuticals and medical equipment can be located and returned.

Systems have been deployed and tested in simulations, in readiness for a natural disaster, pandemic or bio-attack and, Ware points out, they will continue to be tested. Readiness and robust systems are the key to a job ODH hopes it never has to do.

Future logistics needs
Asked what role others in the logistics field could play, Chris Weeks of DHL says its involvement in such efforts started when it looked at what was not being handled well and was causing problems for everyone. "We preferred to give a common service to everyone," he explains. Other groups like Map Action

(www.mapaction.org) in the U.K., which provides satellite images and maps, and Telecoms Sans Frontieres (www.tsfi.org), which provides satellite telephones and air time to support agencies, are examples of the kinds of "shared services" that Weeks is talking about.

The logistics community can provide assistance with future disaster-recovery efforts in a number of ways. Accommodations for relief workers, warehouse space to stage relief aid, transport capacity and logistics expertise, can fill some gaps. In addition to the commercial entities like DHL that have organized relief efforts, non-government organizations like the United Nations, the International Red Cross affiliates (www.icrc.org), and professional associations like the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (www.cscmp.org) are all developing roles for volunteers.

Opening communications channels with the various groups will facilitate rapid and appropriate responses when they are needed. Weeks recalls a conversation with a doctor following the Pakistan earthquake where he learned that one of the most critical needs they had was for plaster of Paris to bandage broken bones. He located a source that was able to donate surplus inventory and then housed it at a distribution center in the region. When an earthquake hit Indonesia earlier this year, they were able to respond. In Indonesia, said Weeks, the second thing they needed after water was plaster of Paris.

Pre-packed vaccines and materials are dispatched from Centers for Disease Control's Strategic National Stockpiles.

Warehouse management in a box. The system can be set up to start tracking emergency supplies in 12 minutes.