Daniel Stoneking thinks the Federal Emergency Management Agency has taken public-private partnerships to a whole new level.

“You hear about transparency in the federal government and folks talk about opening the door. I like to joke that we’ve taken the hinges off the door,” said Stoneking, FEMA’s director of the Private Sector Division.

Flinging the door wide open to the private sector and building a variety of collaborative partnerships with those companies separates FEMA, which became part of the Homeland Security Department in 2003, from most other federal agencies that have developed public-private liaisons.

“The investment we’ve made nationally and regionally is sensible for FEMA, when you consider our mission to support citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from and mitigate all hazards,” Stoneking said.

FEMA’s mission is to support citizens and first responders when disaster strikes-hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, a fire or hazardous spill and acts of terrorism. “FEMA can’t change the world from inside the Washington, D.C., beltway alone,” agency officials say.

If you approach the private sector with ‘give me this or give me that’ it doesn’t help build relationships.”

Private sector companies are often in a position to respond on-site, and do it quickly. For example, when a catastrophic tornado struck Joplin, Mo., in 2011, Lowe’s, the home improvement company, worked with FEMA to provide refrigeration for blood from the local hospital, which was damaged in the storm. Lowe’s also provided grills for families who lost homes so they could cook meals.

Over the past two years, Stoneking and his five-member staff in Washington have created a private-sector outreach position within each of FEMA’s 10 regional offices, in effect establishing a public-private rapid response and recovery infrastructure.

“If the private sector wants to work with us on a national or regional level, we have the structure in place to liaison with them,” he said.

FEMA’s private sector outreach program formally began in 2007 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 called for more collaboration with the private sector, specifically identifying FEMA as an outreach agent.

When Stoneking was named FEMA director for the private sector in early 2010, he was expected to develop an effective collaboration program with the private sector-“meaningful, measurable and with visible outcomes,” he said.

The program’s underlying philosophy assumes that the private sector is in a position to provide resources, people and supplies in a disaster situation and can also help prepare the nation for disasters. But the relationship must be synergistic to accomplish goals, Stoneking said.

“If you approach the private sector with ‘give me this or give me that’ it doesn’t help build relationships,” he said.

Part of this collaborative strategy involves the Private Sector Representative program–bringing a private sector emergency manager into FEMA operations on a 90-day rotation “to help us solve problems” and exchange information. It’s similar to public-private executive exchange programs that other agencies have implemented, but FEMA’s private sector is far more intensive.

Participants are so enmeshed in FEMA’s day-to-day operations that they have to sign non-disclosure agreements that let them be part of the processes inside the agency’s operations centers, Stoneking said.

“Each time we start a new rotation, we learn a little bit more about the private sector because we bring in a new and different sector that helps us learn more about and they learn more about us,” he said. Some of those sectors include banking and finance, retail and telecommunications, he added.

FEMA is planning to grow the Private Sector Representative program into a groundbreaking new virtual organiza­tion, tentatively called the National Business Emergency Operations Center, which will serve as FEMA’s clearinghouse for two-way information sharing between public and private sector stakeholders in preparing for, responding to, and recover­ing from disasters.

FEMA also has made what officials call the “historic decision” to co-brand with businesses that sell any item in a basic emergency supply kit. The program lends legitimacy to business emergency products and the FEMA logo gives visibility to the agency and also conveys to the public a sense that government and industry are working successfully together, according to Stoneking.

Among recent initiatives with the private sector, FEMA is supporting a series of small-business hurricane and disaster preparedness expos, sponsored by Sam’s Club, a division of Walmart. The most recent expo was held June 7 in a Sam’s Club parking lot in Houston, Texas, and featured an appearance by FEMA administrator William Craig Fugate.

The expo was based on the premise that, while many “big box” stores are prepared for emergency situations, the lack of small-business preparedness remains a weakness in community resiliency and overall disaster readiness.

“There is a big gap with small business,” said Mark Cooper, senior director of emergency management for Walmart. “About 60 percent of small business is not prepared for a disaster.”

Sam’s Club and Walmart are planning small-business expos for the 2012 hurricane season along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts that will include booths, displays and demonstrations.

Public-private partnerships are critical to effective disaster preparedness and response, Cooper said.

“We’re all in it,” he said. “We need government to be successful and they need us to be successful. The quicker Walmart or Sam’s Club can open up that’s fewer resources the government has to expend and that’s why [FEMA is] supporting these initiatives.”

“Especially in this time of economic uncertainty with states and the federal government, the private sector has even more of a role,” he added.