THE MAGAZINE

State Perspective - Maine

By Joseph Straw

Robert P. McAleer  is director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), a post he has held since January 2007. He spent the majority of his career—nearly 30 years—as an officer in the Marine Corps, retiring at the rank of colonel. As battalion commander of the 2nd Marine Regiment, McAleer planned and executed the 1991 emergency evacuation of 280 civilians from the American Embassy in Somalia. From 1993 to 1996, he served as executive secretary for the Department of Defense (DoD), managing administrative functions. McAleer was later assistant chief of staff with the First Marine Division. His duties in this position included managing training plans for 20,000 people, while developing operational plans and coordinating support for global operations. Along with varied private-sector work in emergency response and homeland security, McAleer has been an adjunct staff member at the National Emergency Response and Rescue Training Center at Texas A&M University since 2004. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and a recipient of the Bronze Star and Defense Distinguished Service medals.

Q. What are your office’s responsibilities within the state?

A. In this office, we handle preparation, response, recovery, and mitigation. We’re also responsible for the state’s dam-safety program. We have about 757 dams in the state. Of those, 28 are what we call high-hazard, and 76 are significant-hazard and the rest are low-hazard. Overall, 186 are Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)-controlled hydroelectric dams, and there are 51 dams over in New Hampshire, the water from which comes over into the state. So we’ve got a very busy dam inspector.

We’ve got about 23 full-time employees who handle the emergency management side, plus four in the homeland security side. So we’re about the smallest homeland security agency in the country. And there isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t get surprised by something coming up that was not on anybody’s calendar, that’s for sure.

Q. What are some of the other major assets and risks your office focuses on?

A. In many ways, our risks and our assets are kind of the same thing. We’re a rural state. I think a lot of people don’t understand just how big we are: almost as large as the other five New England states put together. We have about 5,700 lakes and ponds, about 5 million acres of wetlands, 3,500 miles of coastline, 91,000 miles of stream and river shoreline, and 2,000 islands. So water, in whatever form, plays a big part in our lives up here. Basically, Maine is a state that lives real close to nature, and so we’re oftentimes subject to her whims.

We’ve got about 2,200 miles of public highways and 6,000 miles of private rural roads. And we’ve got gas pipelines and natural gas distributors; we even have a high-level nuclear waste storage site from an old nuclear site. And then, because of where we are, we’re a thoroughfare from Canada to the rest of the country. So you get an awful lot of hazardous material coming through.

Q. How has your background helped you on the job?

A. I spent just shy of 30 years in the Marine Corps as an infantry officer. I had any number of command positions, and I also worked at very senior levels within the DoD. I got a lot of international experience and a lot of background in operations and logistics. All the other things that are part of emergency management—responding to emergent events, multitasking—were very much a part of what I did. The National Incident Management System (NIMS) is basically a military model. So to me it makes absolutely perfect sense, and it’s easy for me to make that transition.

Q. What’s the biggest challenge you face?

A. You’d think it was dealing with hurricanes or floods. I think the biggest challenge that we face in Maine is dealing with and responding to the requirements levied on us by outside entities like the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In many cases, the system is very supportive, but in others, it’s almost overwhelming.

All of those DHS and FEMA people have a job, they’ve got an avenue that they’re running, and all of those avenues bottleneck down here into a very small agency. And that’s a real burden for us. If we could ever get a recognition of the difference in resources and capabilities between rural states and some of the more urban states, that would be a great thing for us.

Q. How, overall, would you describe  your office’s relationship with the federal government?

A. We belong to FEMA Region I, and we have an absolutely superb relationship with them. This past spring was an example. Late one afternoon, I sent an e-mail to Region I director Art Cleaves and said, “Art, we’re getting hammered up here, we think we’re going to need a snow emergency declared.” That evening he called me at home and said “I’ve got two guys on the way.”

Monday morning they were here to help us begin to formulate that. Wednesday afternoon, another person showed up. So in the course of less than a week, we were able to turn around a pretty complex package to get ready to submit to the federal government.

We also have a very supportive congressional delegation. We’re particularly fortunate that we have Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. We literally can pick up the phone and talk to people on a first name basis, or they will call us to sound things out with us. That works really, really well.

I think if there was anything I could change with that, I’d love to see everything coming out of Washington, D.C., get filtered through FEMA Region I, regardless of the agency it came out of.

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

A. Well, in addition to having one of the very smallest agencies, we have probably the smallest state-funded agency. Next year, it’s going to be slightly shy of $600,000 of funding. Last year, we got about $9 million worth of federal funding, which means we’re basically entirely dependent on federal funding at this point.

That’s a challenge, and it’s something that really worries me. If the federal dollars were ever to dry up, or if there was a requirement for a larger match of federal dollars than we currently have, I don’t know how we would do it. And that does not even include our disaster funding. But that’s the reality of being in Maine; that’s all we can afford to do at this point.

Q. Has the state engaged the private sector in homeland security?

A. Absolutely. Again, with a small staff, we’ve got to figure out ways to leverage whatever assets we can. We have recognized, like most other states, that the private sector is a huge asset if you can get linked up with them in advance. We’ve developed an outreach program targeting the private sector to help keep their businesses going through continuity of operations but also so they would then be able to respond to our requirements.

We’ve established a memorandum of understanding with the Maine Contractors’ Association, which is a tremendous asset. We can call one guy, he can reach out in that organization, and we can have any kind of piece of equipment that we need rolling almost instantly. We have a very close relationship with the Maine Motor Transport Association, and we’re increasing links with ASIS International to talk to them about security issues. Our utilities folks, the power companies, they actually get on the conference calls when we’re getting ready for some sort of weather event, and they’ll be right on there hearing it from the National Weather Service, just like us.

Q. Have any recent exercises or responses produced valuable lessons?

A. I know that it is happening out there. One of my county directors told me the story of a four-alarm fire at a private home. The incident manager was a local fire chief, and he had established his incident command structure by the book. The fire’s going on, and four different companies have responded to it, and he said, “You know, I’m bored.” Everybody was doing their job. So it’s happening, and we’re hearing more stories like that. As they see the NIMS incident command system implemented, and how it works and how well it can work, we get more and more believers.

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

A. The hardest thing for us to do is get all our plans done, whether it’s point-of-distribution plans, pandemic flu plans, evacuation plans, or school plans. They’re very, very time consuming, and each takes a special skill level. Then, of course, it’s one thing to have a plan, but being proficient in the execution of that plan is another thing. And that takes time and hard work. We’re trying to dovetail our training and exercise program with those plans to make sure that they are being exercised in a regular way so that we can identify any shortfalls.

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