National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 Forum explores art of bouncing back

By Beverly Schlotterbeck

All photos by Bev Schlotterbeck

(Left photo) Ken Burris, former FEMA chief operating officer, keynotes the opening session at the Resilient Counties Forum. Burris is now CEO for Witt O’Brien’s.

(Right photo) Hennepin County, Minn. Commissioner Randy Johnson asks a question during the panel discussion on leveraging technology to prepare for threats. Johnson is a past NACo president.

Darry Stacey served 23 years as a first responder in his native Oklahoma. He was sworn into office as a new Cleveland County commissioner in January. Five months later his county was hit with two tornadoes, both in his home district. 

Between his first responder role and his county leader role, Stacey had a lot to say about how to recover and build resiliency in a community after a disaster hits.


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He and NACo President Linda Langston, who watched her Linn County county seat of Cedar Rapids  flood  to nearly biblical proportions in June 2008, also has much to say about resiliency.

Both leaders along with 17 others brought their hard-learned lessons and advice to NACo members attending the forum, Resilient Counties: Leadership amid Rapid Change, Dec. 5–6 in Linn County (Cedar Rapids), Iowa.

The two-day event which drew more than a100 attendees, featured two main speakers, 19 panelists for four panel discussions, a tour of the rebounding Cedar Rapids and a hands-on exercise intended to jump-start the participant’s resilient leadership.

The forum was full of lists of lessons learned, like the one proffered by Stacey:

Top 10 Lessons Learned

  1. Have a plan
  2. Relationships
  3. Communications — cell phones, radio, reverse 911, door-to-door, flyers
  4. Information — people need to know what to do, what to do next. Hold press conferences,  town hall meetings; get on the radio; be available in-person.
  5. N.I.M.S. (National Incident Management System) — Know it, know about the chain of command, staging, incident command centers, for example.
  6.  NGOs — Play a huge part in recovery and assistance. Churches first. I reached out to churches and the Salvation Army  at the start.
  7.  Document!!! — start immediately. Be familiar with FEMA forms. A bit of advice “FEMA is not necessarily a 4-letter word.”
  8. Debris Removal — Do your research beforehand. If possible, have a contract already in place. Be ready for the long term.Know what FEMA will pay for.
  9. Remember the little things— Porta-Potties; sweep the streets for nails immediately before rescue vehicles go in; lights, generators, counseling for victims and first responders.
  10. Fellow commissioners

King County, Wash. Councilmember Jane Hague explains how King County tackled the threat of massive flooding in 2009 of its Green River Valley.  Massive mitigation response protected  the area that supported more than 130,000 jobs. Hague is a past NACo president.

Langston, too, presented a list of steps to recovery and resilience during the panel, “Lessons from County Leaders: Partnering to Confront Change.”  Her steps included:

  • communication and honesty
  • relationships —  before, during and after
  • continuous risk assessment
  • adaptability and continuous learning
  • self-care
  • story telling.

And bit of advice she offered — “You need to know when to shut up and get out of the way” — was echoed by Black Hawk County, Iowa Commissioner  Frank Magsamen when he suggested that “elected officials aren’t always the best to be out there in front  of the camera.”

David Miller wrapped up the forum with a speech showcasing his experiences as the administrator of Iowa’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division, where he served as the governor’s representative during a number of federally declared disasters including the 2008 flood in Linn County. He is now FEMA associate administrator for the Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration.

Black Hawk County, north of Linn County, also experienced significat flooding in 2008. His county has created a Long Term Recovery Committee to help individuals get back on their feet.

Bolstering “Resilient Counties” is the focus of Langston’s term as NACo president. The Cedar Rapids forum is the first of two forums scheduled to support her initiative.

A common theme that emerged from the panel discussions and speeches spotlighted the critical nature of relationships at all  stages of resiliency, disaster response and recovery. “Resilient communities have broad sets of relationships,” noted Les Garner, president and CEO  of the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation.

Sean O’Brien, Barnstable County, Mass., coordinator for the Regional Emergency Planning Committee, leveraged a Nextel phone relationship between a sherrif and a fire chief in Barnstable County, in the early 2000s that led eventually to the regionalization of emergency response and recovery systems in the county that is home to Cape Cod.

“In the old days, there were 15 communities setting up 15 command centers; 15 fire chiefs  trying to get same resources; 31 shelters set up,” O’Brien related at the panel on professional leadership in disaster situations.

After 9/11, officials began to question why the county wasn’t regionalized. Regionaliztion was a sensitive subject for the home-rule towns and cities in the county, but O’Brien said he knew about the two first responders from two different communites who were in contact via the old Nextel two-way phones. He turned to them to lead  a new effort to regionalize emergency services and planning. The Regional Emergency Planning Committee was formed in 2002. Operations during emergencies now are run out of an Multi-agency Co-ordination Center, or MAC. In turf-sensitive Barnstable County, “we don’t call it a county emergency management  center. We named it something else that everyone can live with.”  

Resilient Counties Panelists

Lessons from County Leaders: Partnering to Confront Change

  • Linda Langston, NACo president, Linn County, Iowa supervisor
  • Frank Magsamen, Black Hawk County, Iowa supervisor
  • Jane Hague, King County, Wash. councilmember, and
  • Darry Stacy, Oklahoma County, Okla. commissioner

Professional Leadership in Disaster Situations

  • Rusty Russell, Madison County, Iowa director of emergency management
  • Judson Freed, Ramsey County, Minn. director of emergency management and homeland security
  • Sean O’Brien, Barnstable County, Mass. coordinator, Regional Emergency Planning Committee

Leveraging Technology Tools to Prepare for Threats

  • Lori Cary-Kothera, operations manager, Science and Geospatial Solutions Division, NOAA Coastal Services Center
  • Jason Hutchens, Solution sales engagement manager, public safety  (Central Region), Motorola Solutions
  • Rob Welton, national business manager, enterprise security, Siemens

Local Philanthropic, Business and Economic Development Engagement in Recovery Efforts

  • Les Garner, president and CEO, Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation
  • Karla Twedt-Ball, vice president for programs, Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation
  • Robin Barnes, executive VP and COO, Greater New Orleans, Inc.
  • Lon Olejniczak, senior VP, Transamerica;
  • Cindy Dietz, director of corporate communications, Rockwell Collins

In the meantime, regional planning has blossomed. There’s no longer 31 shelters, for example. The number’s down to six.

“I can’t tell you,” O’Brien said, “how important it is to exploit one little Nextel relationship.”

Resiliency rides on relationships, but the term is difficult to define, said Ken Burris, former FEMA chief operating officer, now CEO for Witt O’Brien’s, a global preparedness, crisis management, and disaster response and recovery consulting company

Burris keynoted the forum’s opening session, relating some critical insights about expectations in the wake of a disaster.  “It’s almost impossible to return the community to a pre-event condition as fast as the people would like, “ he said. 

Commissioner George Hartwick III, Dauphin County, Pa., questions panelists during the Resilient Counties forum.

In addition, people also expect help from government. “Social expectations have grown. Even at the very smallest levels of the crisis people expect officials to step in and give them something,” he said. The social expectations reflect the fact that resiliency is a lot more than rebuilding the public infrastructure, he added.

Some may bemoan expectation of help from government, but government is involved in a big way in responding to and helping with recovery from disasters of all natures. Remarks from Jason Hutchens on the technolgy panel underscore the level of federal government involvement. The Presidential Policy Directive/PPD-8: National Prearedness is driving grants in the emergency management sphere, Hutchens said. County leaders should familiarize themselves with the directive as well as with the State Fusion Centers.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, state and major urban area fusion centers serve as focal points within the state and local environment for the receipt, analysis, gathering, and sharing of threat-related information between the federal government and state, local, tribal, territorial (SLTT) and private sector partners.

Hutchens told county leaders to “get in the game, get in early and learn the process.” Hutchens, who is the central region solution sales engagement manager for Motorola Solutions, was a presenter on the panel, Leveraging Technology Tool to Prepare for Threats.

Another panel explored the role of local philanthropic, business and economic development engagement in recovery efforts. Not only funding but network links and volunteer assistance can be generated by strong ties to these community sectors. For example, in Cedar Rapids, aviation corporation Rockwell Collins provided office space to displaced businesses and agencies. Transamerica, another large employer in Linn County, donated  14,000 employee volunteer hours to help in the clean-up after the 2008 flood.

The forum ended with a luncheon address by David Miller, associate administrator for federal insurance and mitigation administration, FEMA, who reminded partcipants that — when it comes to emergency management and resiliency, “it’s not emergency planning, it’s community planning.”

The next Resilient Counties Forumwill be held in San Francisco, May 1–2, 2014.

Forum participants broke into small groups to assess their existing network of emergency responders and other stakeholders in the public, private sector. Pictured here (from left):  Tracey Marshall, treasurer, Cass County, Iowa; Joel Rohne, IT-GIS director, Worth County, Iowa; Wayne Chizek, GIS director, Marshall County, Iowa;  and Donald Kampman, IT-GIS director, Grundy County, Iowa.

Tips and advice from Resilient Counties presenters

• Set goals that are accomplishable

— Ken Burris
Former FEMA Chief Operating Officer

• Time and date story, e.g. “As of x time on this date, such and such is the case.” Social media moves stories fast

— Burris

 • “Know when to shut up and get out of the way“

— Frank Magsamen
Black Hawk County, Iowa Commissioner

 • “Risk assessment is continuous”

— Linda Langston
Linn County, Iowa supervisor and NACo president

 • “Mitigation can avoid a disaster”

— Jane Hague, King County, Wash.
councilmember and NACo past president

• “Involve NGOs—churches and nonprofits”

— Darry Stacey
Oklahoma County, Okla. Commissioner

• “Use PIO systems because the elected officials aren’t always the best to be out there in front of the cameras"

— Magsamen

• Share costs —“Back where I live there are eight jurisdictions, each with a bomb robot. Look to develop regional agreements for shared capital equipment to avoid situations like that”

— Burris

• Be familiar with FEMA forms

— Stacey

• “Become familiar with Presidential Policy Directive/PPD-8 and State Fusion Centers”

— Jason Hutchens
Solution sales engagement manager,
public safety, Motorola Solutions

• “Do not expect that the federal government is going to come in and rescue you”

— Langston

 • “Can’t build relationships while in a crisis mode”

— lon olejniczak
senior vice president, transamerica

• “Use satellite (communication) as redundant back up. Make sure you have hard copy maps of your community”

— Rob Welton
national business manager,
Enterprise Security, Siemens

• “Research debris removal”

— Stacey

• “In a disaster, even if you have the best relationships, you need to realize that things are going to be a lot of work and it’s going to be really hard”

— Les Garner
president & CEO of The Greater
Cedar Rapids Community Foundation

• “Get in the game. Get in early and learn the process”
— Hutchens