THE MAGAZINE

A State Perspective - Virginia

By Joseph Straw

An Interview with Michael M. Cline

Michael M. Cline, state coordinator of emergency management at the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, joined the department 35 years ago. He assumed the agency’s top post in June 1998, overseeing its response to the Septtember 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon. During his tenure, Cline has served as a projects, operation, and training officer, and has been a member of state disaster response teams for 35 presidentially declared disasters. Cline received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Richmond in 1969.

What are your agency’s responsibilities? How would you describe a typical week on the job?
I’m the governor’s director of emergency management, and we’re responsible for oversight and coordination of all preparedness activities, which includes planning, training, exercises, public education, and outreach. In addition, we’re responsible for implementing state plans. We put out all the terrorism watches and warnings from our emergency operations center, and we oversee the Virginia Emergency Response Team. The response team is comprised of about 40 key state agencies, plus private nonprofits and a number of private sector players. So a given week is an awful lot of meetings, primarily to ensure that all of those programs are running well and that we’re looking ahead, making the contacts we need to sustain the contacts that have already been established

What are some state assets that make your job unique?
Well, there’s the National Capital Region, our military installations, and we have two nuclear power plants. You can make a case for the National Capital Region being the primary target, or primary risk in the country. We also have a major port that is now a UASI (federal Urban Area Security Initiative) in Hampton Roads, a number of other high-population areas, and we try to be cognizant of rural areas and make sure they’re prepared.

What’s the biggest challenge in your job?
It’s always a challenge to keep the public informed and invigorated. Another thing is just keeping everybody working at task. Preparedness is something that never goes away; and you have to make sure that people are excited about what they’re doing, that they don’t lose sight of programs that are already in place.

What has surprised you most on the job?
Well, obviously, 9-11 occurred after I became director. Other than that, it’s amazing to see how well people respond in spite of the obstacles. For instance, after Katrina, problems and issues were identified, but an awful lot of people from localities all the way up to the federal side really did pitch in, and they’re trying to take advantage of lessons learned. That’s always inspiring.

How would you characterize your state’s relationship with the federal government? How has it changed over time?
It varies. You can’t really throw all of the federal government agencies into one basket.

Overall though, I think that right now our federal counterparts are working hard to make sure that they have good, open communications with the state, and that we’re sharing information and working together. It’s a work in progress well. But I am encouraged by the effort that’s being made by everyone involved.

How does your agency’s budget break down? What would you do if you had more money?
The overall budget breaks down about probably 40 percent each from federal grants and the state’s general fund, and then about 20 percent special funds; that includes money from the private sector or from a special program that’s set up to collect money for the HAZMAT program through which we are reimbursed by the parties responsible for those responses.

There are programs funded with federal grants that have to be broken into multiyear projects. If we had more money, we could finish them more quickly and move onto the next project

Can you discuss Virginia’s efforts in the area of communications interoperability?
The Virginia experience is being used as a template for interoperability—or an approach to interoperability—across the country. I need to mention the gentleman who headed that project, Chris Essid. We went out across the state and pulled in stakeholders on a regional basis, to determine what they needed and what they thought the best approach would be.

One of the first things that they determined was that plain speak—plain English—was the only thing that could work for everybody, because there were so many different local numerical codes or the other special codes used. And that’s what they’re putting in place now.

On the technological side, now before anyone goes out and builds something new on their own, we look at the impacts on our future ability to be able to pull systems into an interoperable network.

The biggest thing was getting regional input. We established working groups at local and state levels, and then in federal expertise and we make sure that they’re aware of what’s going on. It seemed from a lot of perspectives to be the right approach, and so far, it’s working well for us

Does the state collaborate with the private sector? If so, how?
One specific example is our power companies. After Hurricane Isabelle hit back in 2003, we had 100 of our 140 jurisdictions without power. And there was a lot of difficulty coordinating priorities at the local level.

Since then, the companies have opened regional response offices to locals. So now, if a locality has identified a building as a shelter or staging area, they can go to the power company to make sure that facility has the highest priority.

Can you discuss a major lesson your agency learned from a recent exercise?
Last year we exercised for the first time a brand new emergency operations center (EOC) we opened in January of ’06, and one of the things that we came out of it with was that we really needed to improve the training.

We have a Web-based software package that’s our primary mechanism for following a request for assistance to the various agencies that will actually carry it out. We can see minute by minute who’s done what, or if something has fallen through, who’s supposed to be handling it. What we saw in that exercise was a need to train all the people—state and local—who have to use that system.

What are your agency’s goals for the coming year and after?
The overarching goals are to carry forward the goals in preparedness, response and recovery, and mitigation capabilities. We need to make sure the procedures within the EOC and its contacts out to the localities and state agencies are well-oiled and well-exercised.

Another major emphasis this year is evacuation and shelter. We have just revised our state’s emergency operations plan. The hurricane plan will be revised again prior to the hurricane season. We’ve got a number of new programs and new resources available for expanding our host sheltering capacity, and we’ve done a lot of work on trying to educate folks on the evacuation procedures and making sure that the localities and the state agencies are ready to implement a major evacuation if we need one.

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