Frontline first responder takes on FEMA disaster preparedness role
I was in my office on the 23rd floor of Chicago’s AT&T building, kitty-corner to the then-Sears Tower, when the first plane hit New York’s Twin Towers. As speculation began that planes could be headed toward the Sears, I wondered if Chicago’s search-and-rescue teams were equipped to help me survive. I had no provisions in my office on 9/11 — no food or bottled water. I was completely unprepared and, as history has shown, so was FEMA leadership.
Honestly, past failures of FEMA during 9/11 and Katrina — and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill — made me a bit disillusioned with decision-makers who lacked the field experience and survival skills to lead a team of first responders during a large-scale incident. But I recently felt a renewed sense of confidence in federal response leadership after speaking with Tim Manning, FEMA’s deputy administrator for protection and national preparedness. In fact if I was in a bind, he’d be the man I’d call.
Manning is responsible for preparing the nation to protect against, to prevent, to respond to and to recover from acts of terrorism and natural disasters, and has responded to nearly every type of incident imaginable. From hiking out to the backcountry of New Mexico during search-and-rescue missions to analyzing hazmat incidents, he’s done it all. He is a former firefighter, EMT, rescue mountaineer, hazmat specialist and hydrologist. He also brings frontline emergency management experience to the agency, most recently serving as the secretary of the New Mexico’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and as homeland security advisor to Gov. Bill Richardson in 2007.
By no means do I know Manning. But after speaking with him, I realized he’s dedicated to the safety of his community based on his actions. He spent most of career volunteering as a firefighter/EMT throughout New Mexico — working structural fires or rappelling down a cliff to rescue a climber or rushing to save a life at curbside. During the day, he worked as a hydro-geologist doing hazardous materials analysis at the sites of accidents and often would respond as a firefighter to an incident and then, weeks later, end up as a geologist and hazardous materials specialists working the cleanup.
Such life experience puts Manning in the position to opine on the best tools for the each specific job, especially in regards to interoperability. He said with more than $4 billion a year in FEMA grants dedicated to emergency responders, there is some money available specifically to the build outs of interoperable communications. First responder and related private industry can develop reliable communications with the grants, noting “there are big gaps throughout the country and some areas need the simple ability to communicate with each other, not complex, interoperable communications,” he said.
Manning made a good point when he said, “Sometimes old technology if used correctly is the right solution to the problem.” It inevitably led to a comparison between analog versus digital communications in harsh or remote environments. He said in his experience, digitally encrypted radios, in most contexts, were exactly the right tool for the job. But there also were times when simple technology was better.
“In wildland fires and backcountry rescue, you’re hoping your radio signal is bouncing off the atmosphere and going further, where a simple analog radio that can break squelch … is a better tool in those environments compared to an encrypted radio that works or doesn’t work,” he said.
Honestly, my conversation with Manning left me with a sense of renewed security and trust. He is a man who can respond to any disaster, in any kind of environment and brings that knowledge to his role at FEMA. My only hope is that those in power listen to his advice before, during and after a large-scale incident when it comes to finding the right tools for the job, and that he can cut through any red tape in order to get it done.
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