THE MAGAZINE

State Perspective - Connecticut

By Joseph Straw

 James M. “Skip” Thomas is the first commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security (DEMHS), serving since the agency’s establishment on January 1, 2005. Thomas began his public safety career in 1969 as an officer with the Glastonbury Police Department, where he served as a youth officer, court liaison officer, sergeant, lieutenant, and administrative aide to the chief of police. In 1985, Thomas was named chief of the Vernon Police Department. Two years later, he returned to Glastonbury as chief of police. In 1998, Thomas joined the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management (OPM) as director of justice planning, heading the Justice Planning and Grants Management Unit while serving as OPM liaison to federal, state, and municipal governments in crime-related programs. Thomas holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from St. Louis University, a Master of Science degree in criminal justice from the University of New Haven, and he is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and the FBI Law Enforcement Executive Development Program. He has taught at the Connecticut Police Academy, Holyoke Community College (Massachusetts) and Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic.

Q. What are the responsibilities of your office?

A. Our agency is responsible for all hazards, whether they are natural or man-made disasters. We report directly to Governor M. Jodi Rell in regard to coordinating the state’s response. There are 169 towns in Connecticut, but we do not have county government, so we are responsible for coordinating and serving as the linchpin between the federal, state, and local government in any significant incident.

Q. What are some of the assets and threats that make Connecticut unique?

A. Connecticut is kind of unique in that we have significant assets connected to national defense. We have the Navy submarine base in Groton, which is home to many nuclear submarines, and we have several companies that are responsible for building and maintaining the subs. We have many other national defense firms, including Sikorsky Aircraft in Stratford; Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford; and their parent company, United Technologies, in Hartford. We are also very privileged to have the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London.

We’re located between two critical cities: New York City and Boston. We have a significant amount of shoreline, and a nuclear power plant, the Millstone Power Station. So we will always consider ourselves high-risk.

Q. What’s the greatest challenge in your job?

A. The greatest challenge is creating and maintaining awareness and vigilance among the public without crying wolf, or sounding like Chicken Little, if you will. There was a really rough hurricane season in the Atlantic last year. We were lucky in that nothing hit us, but we can see how devastating it has been to some other states. We’re always exercising and training, with the benchmark being the most devastating storm we’ve ever had, which was 1938.

We coordinate programs out of five regional offices. The state varies greatly by region, which presents its own challenges. Fairfield County, for example, down near New York, is totally different than Litchfield County just to the north, which is very rural. We encourage towns not just to exercise their plan but also to conduct multi-jurisdictional, regional exercises.

We’ve given each one of our regional coordinators a budget for training and exercise that they can pass on. That’s been very successful. All incidents begin at the local level and they’ll always be local, but none of our 169 towns or cities could sustain itself for the long term in a catastrophic event without mutual aid from its partners.

Q. How would you characterize your agency’s relationship with its federal agency partners? What aspects of that relationship would you change if you could?

A. Right now the working relationship is good. Hurricane Katrina taught the nation that we’ve got to be better prepared; we’ve got to be better coordinated. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region I works very closely with all six New England states. We also work closely with Region II, which is made up of New York and New Jersey. So we are working closely with both FEMA regions on every single incident; they are leaning forward like I’ve never seen before.

Q. What has the state done to foster information sharing?

A. Four years ago we established the state’s fusion center, the Connecticut Intelligence Center (CTIC). Again, it’s a partnership based at the local level, with local representatives from each of our five regions. We also have representatives from the state police, the state department of corrections, the FBI, and the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. It’s a great team.

CTIC issues an all-hazards bulletin at a minimum once a week, although it can come out daily or hourly if needed. We include information from New York City, New York State, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. It’s the first time I’ve seen in 39 years, where everybody—from the Connecticut Chiefs of Police Association to the Coast Guard—is signed on to one source. Everybody waits for that one document. To me, that’s what it’s all about, working together and throwing away all the egos. That’s our goal.

Q. Is sustainable funding a concern for your agency?

A. The federal funding has been almost level the last two or three years. We know it’s a difficult situation, particularly in the homeland security grant funding. So we’re hopeful that the current level that we’re getting from the Department of Homeland Security will be sustained particularly for CTIC and the training and exercising we need to do. I would say that FEMA’s Emergency Management Preparedness Grant is moving in the right direction in terms of sustainability.

We’re really stretching our Homeland Security Grant Program funding on training and exercises. Statewide there’s been an average 45 exercises a year, but that can go as high as 60 exercises.

Q. Does your office collaborate with the private sector? If so, how?

A. Yes. I think everybody recognizes how critical the private sector is. We have a statewide FBI InfraGard chapter, and Connecticut has one of the largest contingents of private sector involvement. We’ve also opened up an emergency management information-sharing portal, Homeland Security Information Network-Connecticut, to vetted private sector partners. We also share open source information that’s not law enforcement sensitive with the private sector. They’ve been stepping up, and we know that for us to be successful, we need their involvement.

Q. Have exercises or responses produced valuable lessons?

A. In August, we had a federally mandated radiological drill. We have five predetermined host communities that would, in an emergency, take in evacuees from around the nuclear power plant. In this drill, we tested East Hartford, and they were great partners. We used a decontamination unit where people and vehicles were decontaminated. We had a state animal rescue (SAR) team so that if people brought their pets, the animals  would be given to the SAR team and then eventually reunited with their owners. We had many people with disabilities—people who were blind, had service animals, or who were mute and needed signing. We wanted the most difficult situations for the intake team.

We’ve spent a lot of time on people with disabilities, because we want to make sure that our shelters can take care of people with a service animal or a special medical condition. We’re working with nursing homes and our Department of Public Health to set up separate shelters that can give more advanced care. We bought special beds for people with disabilities, and we have a strong relationship with the disability community.

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

A. Our big goal will continue to be public education. I think that people become numb to it until you see the pictures of Galveston or Houston after Hurricane Ike last year. We have to be better prepared on an individual basis and take personal responsibility for us and our families and then work closely with the local government and the state government, because it’s just a matter of time before we have an incident here. That’s the key thing for us. 

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