Smart disaster preparedness includes purchasing cards

Purchasing cards for responder community enable purchase of supplies in off-line situations

Purchasing cards are valued for their flexibility and oversight in times of disaster.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods are the sorts of natural disasters most of us would rather not contemplate. But for state and local governments - in most cases the first responders - worst-case scenario planning is a vital part of their business. Government agencies understand how important it is to be prepared for all aspects of emergency response, including the procurement of necessary supplies and services.

When disaster strikes and agencies are working frantically around to clock to provide water, food, generators, emergency services, and vaccines, 60- to 90-day paper-based purchase orders are not a viable option.

Every effective disaster plan should include strategies for flexible payments, such as purchasing cards, alongside plans for emergency communications and personnel. Purchasing cards help enable city, county, and state agencies to procure emergency supplies and services not only quickly, but under conditions when even basic infrastructure such as power grids, telecommunications networks, and banking systems are disrupted and suppliers are without power or have been destroyed.

Take the example of agency employees in Florida who needed to purchase gasoline to power trucks and equipment so they could cut down fallen trees and clear roadways during the 2004 hurricane season. In the pitch dark, with no electricity, gas station owners were comfortable accepting agency workers' purchasing card for payment.

"Vendors were confident processing cards offline using paper slips because they knew they would be paid promptly," said Lisa Wilkerson, purchasing card program administrator for the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT).

In the not-too-distant past, before the advent of purchasing cards, some agencies resorted to using cash during these kinds of crises. The obvious downside of cash was that it was difficult to manage and vulnerable to abuse.


The state of Florida began implementing its first purchasing card programs in 1994. At that time, the focus was not on disasters but on everyday efficiency and cost savings, such as procuring office supplies, computers, or field equipment without the costly purchase order procedure. Purchase orders are time-intensive and expensive to process, often taking 60-90 days and costing an estimated $35-$ 150 per transaction.

By implementing purchasing card programs, states not only save millions of taxpayer dollars, but procurement times are quicker, and administrators now have a greater level of transparency, accountability, and security for all transactions.

The hurricanes that struck Florida and the Gulf Coast in 2004 and 2005 became an unplanned testing-ground for using existing purchasing card technology during disasters.

The cards proved so indispensable they rapidly became the new standard for effective disaster response; critical supplies were secured faster under the worst conditions with maximum oversight and minimal abuse.


Florida is a region that has grown accustomed to the often devastating effects of nature, but even Floridians were not prepared for the series of hurricanes that swept through the state in 2004. Four major storms hit within less than a two-month period. Ninety-five people lost their lives, and $42 billion worth of structural damage was inflicted as winds of up to 165 miles per hour destroyed roads, buildings, and other public infrastructure.

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