THE MAGAZINE

State Perspective - Arkansas

By Joseph Straw

David Maxwell has served as director of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management (ADEM) since June 2006, supervising the state’s emergency preparedness, response, and recovery efforts. The agency’s senior employee, he began his tenure in 1978, later becoming ADEM’s manager of plans and operations, responsible for coordination with state, federal, and volunteer agencies during responses and recoveries. As deputy director beginning in 2002, Maxwell was responsible for the agency’s day-to-day operations. In his current role, he chairs the Arkansas Homeland Security Advisory Group and serves on panels including the Arkansas Terrorism Task Force and the Governor’s Earthquake Advisory Council. He is vice president of the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) and a director of the Central United States Earthquake Consortium (CUSEC). Maxwell earned his bachelor’s degree from Arkansas Tech University in Russellville and a master’s degree in sociology from Henderson State University in Arkadelphia.

Q. What are your office’s responsibilities? What is a typical day or week like?

A. Our main function is to coordinate any state agency response to disasters or emergencies. We handle the emergency management functions of preparedness, training, exercise planning, and mitigation, along with the disaster response and recovery. We stay pretty busy with that. I’m also the state homeland security advisor, and we’re the state administrative agency for Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grants.

A typical day or week? I don’t think I’ve ever had one. That’s one of the things I like most about this job. You never really know what you’re going to end up doing when you come to work on a given day. I guess, typically, the biggest thing is just maintaining contacts. Emergency management is probably 80 percent relationships, keeping those relationships, making sure everyone’s playing off the same sheet of music, and that our relationships with the other state agencies and federal agencies are functioning well.

Q. What are the state’s top assets and threats, natural or man-made?

A. Well, we have a nuclear power plant in the state, we have the Army’s Pine Bluff Arsenal, which has chemical weapons. We’re one of the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (CSEP) states through which they’re incinerating the chemicals, and that’s going extremely well. We hope to close out within the next couple of years.

We have some major Department of Defense contractors, the world headquarters of Wal-Mart, the world headquarters of Tyson Foods, the world headquarters of J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Inc., all within probably a 10-to-12 square-mile area in northwest Arkansas.

The natural threats include flooding, tornadoes, and earthquakes because of the New Madrid Seismic Zone in eastern Arkansas that could impact up to 34 of our 75 counties. Natural disasters are something we deal with on a monthly, if not weekly, basis.

As far as terrorism, certainly the international threat is out there, but I think we have to remain vigilant to homegrown groups that could cause a problem. I have something of a disagreement with the way DHS measures risk, and I think they are too population-oriented—too focused on protecting urban areas. There are major risks in rural areas that would have greater impact on the entire population, rather than a regional population, such as to our food supply.

Q. What are your biggest challenges as director?

A. The biggest challengs are learning the issues and processes, dealing with the state legislature, and dealing with all of the grants. We’re over 80 percent federally funded, so we have to pay attention to national issues and what’s going on within DHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to ensure that we’re on top of the grant processes and all the requirements they place on us to ensure that we can continue to function as we need to in the state.

Q. How would you characterize your office’s relationship with federal partners? What else would you change if you could?

A. There are always going to be issues between states and federal personnel. That’s just the nature of the beast. We have an extremely good relationship with FEMA Region VI, and I certainly applaud FEMA Administrator David Paulison’s efforts at pushing more responsibilities down to the regions. The regions are able to understand their states better than looking at an entire nation of 50 states plus the territories and trying to make one size fit all. Our relationship with FEMA and DHS goes up and down, but I think that’s perfectly natural. They probably feel the same way about the states.

Q. How does your agency’s funding break down?

A. We receive the federal Emergency Management Preparedness Grant, which we share with local governments. That grant is of prime necessity for the maintenance of the emergency management system in this country.

We also get Homeland Security Grant Program funding, of which 80 percent goes to the local governments. We’re a little bit unique in that we do have state-funded disaster programs, and we handle 10 to 15 disasters with those funds for every one that gets federal disaster money.

Q. Has the state engaged the private sector either in attack prevention or in response, recovery, or other areas?

A. I think this is probably one area that we need to improve on most. It’s awfully easy for us to deal with governmental entities; it gets a little more complicated working with the private sector, but we do have pretty good contacts with most of the major players in the state, and we talk on occasion. I hope over the next year or two to really start to formalize and increase our involvement with the private sector.

Q. Can you discuss the state’s response to this year’s Super Tuesday tornadoes, along with any successes or lessons learned?

A. In Arkansas, we had a tornado that was on the ground, literally, without leaving the ground, for 123 miles. That’s a record, as far as I know, and not one we want to break. I think we did a good job of getting resources out to the local areas. I think we need to improve on communicating with the locals, however.

We can always stand some improvement to make sure that we’re exploring all of our options for resources, and not getting too dependent on, say, the National Guard. We’ve got an extremely good Guard here, so it’s awfully easy for us to say, “Well, let’s get the Guard to do it.” They are quite capable of doing that, but there might be better resources that we could tap and that we could respond quicker, and we need to make sure we’re aware of those resources. We’re working with the Arkansas Sheriffs Association, which has a task force that we can activate and get law enforcement into an area very quickly.

Q. What’s your assessment of federal involvement in this year’s natural disasters, relative to the criticism leveled since FEMA’s placement within DHS?

A. Well first, we’ve never had a problem with federal response here. Whenever we’ve had a disaster, we’ve been able to communicate with FEMA Region VI, and normally we don’t have to ask for anything, except it sounds crass to say it, but what we need is money. We get a presidential disaster declaration to help the residents recoup and get infrastructure rebuilt. But generally we don’t ask for commodities. We did this time. We got a lot of the blue tarps, quite a bit of water, and it worked very well.

Q. What are your office’s goals for the coming year?

A. We’re right in the middle of catastrophic earthquake planning with all of the CUSEC states. FEMA has provided funding, and we hope to gain a very good idea of what the local governments would need from us after a major quake and what we’d need from the federal government. That leads up to a national-level exercise in 2011.

We’re going to do a baseline assessment later this year for the Emergency Management Accreditation Program (EMAP). I would love to come out of that with our emergency management program accredited. We’re also revising the state emergency operations plan to follow the new National Response Framework, and we are working with the different support functions and making sure that we all understand our roles and responsibilities.

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