Skip to main content
Student Experiences

Preparing to Perform

According to Our World In Data, the number of recorded disasters has increased by 700% since 1940. Much of this change is due to improved data reporting, but even with this caveat, the reported flood and weather-related disasters are rising at a disproportionate rate.

Students stand conversing in small groups, looking down at their phones. Several students are in the process of moving from one group to another. In the background a projected slide reads: "A Crisis Occurs!!!"
In October, BYU Marriott's GSCM 429 students participated in a disaster simulation.
Photo courtesy of Kathy Fulton.

In order to help global supply chain management (GSCM) students prepare for the disasters they will respond to in the workforce, associate professor Barry Brewer invited Kathy Fulton, executive director of American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN), to run a disaster simulation at the BYU Marriott School of Business.

“GSCM students learn an incredible number of skills in procurement, operations, and logistics,” Brewer said. “Our primary focus is to employ those tools in business situations with a profit motive, but their supply chain skills are equally relevant in humanitarian efforts to provide the needed assistance to sustain life and reduce the impact of injury in affected communities. This simulation is important to give our students a vision of how they can contribute in meaningful ways.”

A student in a black hoodie stares confidently into the camera. He is holding his phone over his head. The screen of the phone reads: "I AM SELLING WATER" in all caps.
Students represented government officials, business professionals, nonprofit leaders, and individuals in the simulation.
Photo courtesy of Kathy Fulton.

The students in GSCM 429: Global Supply Chain Strategy were assigned various circumstances to simulate the way different organizations handle natural disasters. They were given one of four roles: government, business, nonprofit, or individual. Those who represented businesses were assigned a resource: food, water, or medicine. Nonprofit, government, and business members had a geographic area they were in charge of and a set amount of money.

After learning their roles, students were given a short period of time to coordinate with other participants and discuss how they can provide relief if a disaster strikes. Then the simulated disaster struck. The students had under twenty minutes to get each essential resource to areas with a corresponding demand without overfilling the need. “Coordination is hard,” Brewer admitted. “Being able to act in that high-stakes environment is an important skill to learn.”

After the simulation ran, Fulton conducted a briefing to answer questions, give advice, and review the students’ experiences. The class shared the difficult aspects of the simulation and discussed ways to account for these challenges in the real world.

For example, the students struggled to find resources to fill all of the aid requests. Fulton revealed that the perceived scarcity was not due to an actual lack of resources, but rather stemmed from challenges in coordination and transportation. “Even in the real world, we have enough food to feed all of our population,” Fulton said. “The problem is price, equity, and supply chain. The resources aren’t where they need to be. That's a logistics problem—figuring out how to get resources from one place to another.”

This simulation gave students a glimpse of the struggles that come with real-world crisis response. “Information is really key in a crisis,” said GSCM student Ryan Dodson from Louisville, Kentucky, shared. “When we are acting on good information, we can make better decisions to meet people’s needs. In the workplace, I want to go out of my way to make sure I’m communicating well with others. Then I’ll be able to make more educated decisions on good information.”

Proper communication between businesses, governments, and nonprofits is essential to effective disaster response. Sometimes nonprofits put out requests for supplies but neglect to communicate when it has been filled. Businesses then spend time trying to fill a request that is no longer needed rather than delivering those resources to a place that still needs assistance.

Students converse in loose standing groups. One scratches her head with a frazzled expression while another stares into the camera with a perplexed expression, fingers interlaced in front of him.
Students learned to coordinate as they exchanged and transported their simulated resources.
Photo courtesy of Kathy Fulton.

A lack of proper communication and information flow can also be harmful to the culture, lifestyle, and morale of the community who requires aid. “Businesses want to help,” Fulton said. “But when they aren’t coordinated, or when their attempt at helping is not in response to a demand signal, they can do emotional damage to those communities.”

Students confirmed the importance of facilitating communication. “I think companies should talk about what they can do, what kinds of potential disasters they're able to help with and then make a plan on what kinds of resources they could allocate to provide aid during a disaster,” said Skyler Freeman, a GSCM student from Vancouver, Washington.

“We need to think about the entire ecosystem—who has resources, where they can draw from, how we can understand and monitor that,” Fulton explained. “We don’t necessarily need to pre-position all of the supplies, but we need to pre-position relationships so we have somewhere to get the resources we need.”

Two students in the corner of the frame huddle together over their phones, typing. In the center, a larger group gesture with their hands as they talk.
With under twenty minutes on the clock, students had to work quickly to distribute resourses.
Photo courtesy of Kathy Fulton.

Many students struggled with the time constraint. “We didn’t have much time to plan or to really think about what we're doing. We just had to act in the moment,” said GSCM student Joshua Nelson from St. George, Utah.

The short timeframe of the simulation was designed to emphasize the importance of acting quickly. “When it comes to disaster relief, time is life,” Brewer said.

Fulton gave the students tips to help them act quickly. “You have to make decisions fast—that’s why pre-planning is so important. Think about what can you do ahead of time so that when something actually happens, you don't have to think—you're just executing what you planned.”

The simulated disaster is like a fire drill—something that can be done to rehearse the steps taken in an actual emergency. Brewer’s goal in running the simulation was to help them prepare to serve in the future.

“I want you to think about how you can be an asset to the community,” Brewer said. “So that when the rubber hits the road you can be good citizens and good Samaritans.”


Written by Melissa Een