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The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • Q5: A lifeline/lifetime of public service

  • Jeffrey M. Smith, who grew up in Leavenworth, spent 24 years serving his country in the U.S. Coast Guard. He said many of those skills translated to working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency beginning almost five years ago.
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  • Jeffrey M. Smith, who grew up in Leavenworth, spent 24 years serving his country in the U.S. Coast Guard. He said many of those skills translated to working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency beginning almost five years ago.
    Smith, who was recently promoted to director of FEMA Region VII's Mission Support Division, talks more about the agency and his division's functions in this Q5.
    1. Jeffrey, as the newly promoted director of FEMA Region VII's Mission Support Division, can you give us an overview of your duties? How long have you been with FEMA?
    "I started with FEMA in October 2009 as a branch chief for the Response Division. I was tasked with standing up a new branch that provides situational awareness to all regional — Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri — emergency management stakeholders 24/7 for actual or potential all-hazard events. This tied in nicely with my last Coast Guard assignment where I was in charge of the District Seven Command Center in Miami, Fla., responding to search and rescue, law enforcement, Homeland Security and migrant interdiction operations. I was able to translate a lot of the watch policies, procedures and training requirements from the Coast Guard Command Center to the newly formed FEMA Regional Watch Center. The Response Division was an excellent place for me to start to learn about emergency management and I feel very fortunate to have had that opportunity.
    "In January of this year, I assumed my new role as the Mission Support Division director. As the name indicates, the division is not a FEMA program such as Response, Recovery, Mitigation or National Preparedness, but this division supports those executing those programs. I like to think that MS is the nucleus about which everyone else revolves. Without MS, the programs and their staffs would not be able to function properly and meet the needs of the disaster survivors. We have a number of components within the division that includes Human Resources, Finance and Budget, Facilities, Information Technology and Security. The FEMA Region VII office here in Kansas City, Mo., currently has a staff of 215 employees, which we support with a staff of 39.
    "My priorities for the Mission Support staff FY2014 are simple:
    • Planning: Be proactive. Be prepared. The only thing we know about the future is that it will be different.
    • Customer service: Enhance customer and stakeholder partnership trust through consistent, timely and reliable service.
    • Business excellence: Field a motivated, quality workforce supported by robust and agile business functions that are capable of withstanding our greatest challenges."
    2. How does your division support constituents before, during and after disasters and how does it promote the importance of disaster preparedness in general?
    "As I stated earlier, the Mission Support Division does not manage a disaster program, but rather is the backbone of the individual programs, ensuring FEMA employees have the tools they need to perform their steady state and disaster duties. Having said that, understand the MSD staff also have disaster roles that they fulfill when a disaster occurs. They perform lengthy deployments to the Joint Field Offices that are tasked with managing the disaster.
    Page 2 of 4 - "Typically, their roles align with their regular jobs within HR, Finance, IT, Facilities or Security and they support those programs in the field. Additionally, after the disaster is managed in the field it is transferred back to the regional office to complete its closeout activities, where again MSD staff continue to perform the administrative requirements needed to bring the event to closure. It is through an aggressive qualification process that staff maintains certification to perform their specific disaster duties. This process includes training courses, exercises and actual disaster deployments."
    3. You retired with 24 years of service as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Coast Guard. How did this experience help you prepare for your responsibilities at FEMA?
    "My Coast Guard experience helped me on a number of levels, most importantly from a leadership perspective. Having started my career as an enlisted member (10 years) and then transitioning to an officer (14 years), I was able to become an exceptional follower before becoming a leader. This path was a humbling one but one that allowed me to understand the wants and needs of those around me. By the time I had reached the lieutenant commander level, I had been exposed to numerous leadership challenges with a diverse workforce that aided in my professional development. Challenges are part of FEMA’s daily routine based on the sheer dynamic of emergency management and disaster response.
    "Another area that I felt my Coast Guard experience was noteworthy was working within an interagency environment, where teamwork and partnerships across all echelons were extremely important to mission success. Here in FEMA, we federal agencies work hand in hand with our state and local emergency management partners, voluntary agencies, faith-based organizations and the private sector, all of whom are critical components in meeting survivor needs. Understanding how to bring the whole community together focused on a common goal is the most important element in preparing for, responding to, recovering from, and mitigating all hazards.
     
    4. How did growing up and going to school in Leavenworth influence your decisions to serve in the Coast Guard and begin your FEMA career?
    "This is an interesting question. I can certainly attest to the fact that I am who I am because of where I grew up and the family and friends that were a part of my life. The small-town Leavenworth mentality that supported strong relationships, moral responsibility and a solid work ethic had me destined for organizations built on cooperation, hard work and helping people. The Coast Guard taught me the importance of honor, respect and devotion to duty, which directly ties to FEMA’s core values of compassion, fairness, integrity and respect.
    "My Leavenworth roots have taken me farther than I ever expected."
     
    5. What are some things that you would like the public to know about how FEMA provides a safety net in times of emergency and disaster?
    Page 3 of 4 - "The Federal Emergency Management Agency is but one of many partners that make up the whole community who plans and prepares for, responds to, recovers and rebuilds from, and mitigates after disasters.
    "Within this community,  local, state, tribal and federal governments, faith-based and voluntary organizations, education establishments and a host of other community stakeholders are working together to inform their constituents about disasters, about how to best prepare for the unknown, and what to do when an emergency occurs.
    "Prior to a disaster, FEMA maintains a robust network of partners who, working and convening together, write and test emergency response plans, conduct outreach to ensure communities are disaster-ready, and provide technical support on how communities can build smarter and better in order to mitigate against the impacts of future disasters.
    "Although FEMA is always monitoring potential threats both natural and manmade, and remains in constant communication with its states in order to proactively anticipate and respond to disasters, we are not the 'heroes’ in an emergency. We are merely a facilitating and a coordinating agency that assists when called upon; many times people refer to us as the ‘gap-fillers.’ The local fire department, the police squadrons, the search and rescue teams, the health providers, nurses and triage units in the hospitals and health departments … these are the real heroes. At the onset of an emergency, local responders are often the first resources and personnel on scene, and more often than the not, they are the last ones to remain — long after FEMA and a concert of other federal, state and other non-governmental entities have left the community. Moreover, local emergency management officials are the best resource for life-safety and life-saving information — what to do, disaster impacts and what to expect in the next few hours. Individuals should look to their local authorities for critical emergency response guidance and instructions at the onset of a disaster.
    "Where does FEMA come in? Should a disaster rise to a level the Governor feels is beyond his or her state’s capacity (financial and otherwise) to respond and recover from, the Governor may choose to submit a request for a federal disaster declaration to the President of the United States. Should the President grant a federal disaster declaration, the designation may trigger a variety of FEMA disaster recovery programs and services to assist local and state governments, and in some cases, individuals who were impacted or suffered losses as a result of the disaster.
    "Under the Stafford Act, FEMA can activate a variety of its own disaster assistance programs, as well as mission-assign a host of other federal agencies to operate under their own statutory authorities in order to support specific disaster-related needs of the requesting state and it’s communities.
    "It’s important to note however, some programs like FEMA’s Individual Assistance program are never really intended to be viewed or used as a ‘disaster safety net.’ While some resources such as Individual Assistance grants may be an option, the lump sum of this FEMA financial aid often varies for each disaster survivor and the amount is never truly enough to make individuals whole again. FEMA disaster assistance may provide some relief, but it is truly designed to give individuals the boost they need take ownership of their own recovery and rebuilding process. Homeowners insurance and a National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) flood insurance policy are the best sources of protection and financial relief for homeowners and renters during a disaster. Securing a policy now just might literally save your financial well-being and your family’s peace in mind following a disaster.
    Page 4 of 4 - "Realizing individuals’ needs will vary in complexity and diversity, FEMA again, acts as a conduit or coordinator during the disaster recovery process – ensuring no one gets left behind or falls through the cracks post-disaster. A host of federal, state and non-profit entities support the disaster recovery process including the Small Business Administration (SBA), the American Red Cross and a variety of voluntary and inter-faith disaster recovery networks. Once a disaster is declared, a FEMA Voluntary Agency Liaison (VAL) works closely with other VALs at the state and local government as well as the non-governmental levels. Together, a team of disaster recovery liaisons work together (often through a previously established VOAD – Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) to route individuals who still have unmet needs after going through the federal disaster registration process, through a standing network of organizations and resources. In many cases, it is through the resources and support of this long-term recovery network that individuals are cared for and closely monitored well after FEMA and its partners have gone.
    "Bottom line, FEMA is not the team before, during and after disasters, we are simply a part of the whole community emergency management team that comes together to connect disaster survivors with immediate and long-term recovery solutions when crisis strikes. Together, we’re helping our communities and the people they serve get back to normalcy as quickly and effectively as possible."

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