James M. Mullen has served as director of Washington State’s Emergency Management Division since July 2004, overseeing the state’s response to nine presidentially declared disasters. Mullen has expanded public education efforts and outreach to the state’s private sector, which includes giants like Boeing and Microsoft. Previously, Mullen spent 12 years as Seattle’s emergency management director. The International Association of Emergency Managers has recognized Mullen for his “outstanding contribution” to emergency management and as an “outstanding representative of our discipline.”
Q. What are your office’s responsibilities within the state?
A. Our primary responsibility is to minimize the effect of disasters on the citizens of the state of Washington. We also administer the state’s enhanced 911 system, and we handle emergency-preparedness training, which entails training both state and local officials. Within the director’s office, we have public information, public education, and, most recently, corporate relations.
Q. What are the main threats that the state faces?
A. Our biggest concern is earthquakes, or an earthquake off our coast, followed by a tsunami, which would cause immediate devastation. But, of course, our most frequent and dangerous events are floods, which we’ve had our share of in the last couple of years, and wildfires.
Q. What is the biggest challenge of your job?
A. I think the biggest challenge is to keep looking ahead while dealing with everything that’s coming at us on a day-to-day basis. We can’t be totally fixated on all the data calls, pressures, and frustrations with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
It seems to me we kind of went astray in 2001—and this is just a personal opinion—when we were in the rush to show that we were going to do something, anything—like establish DHS—without any real analysis, debate, or discussion. In fact, it was discouraged.
On 9-11, the country’s emergency management agencies did their jobs beautifully. And yet we had our world changed radically as a result. It turned our profession from a proactive group into simple grant managers and the subjects of federal requirements. The next time a major event happens, I hope we take a deep breath, assess what’s happening, muffle the “do something, anything” drum beat, and decide what we really need to do to either maintain, enhance, and if necessary, change the way we’re operating.
Q. How would you characterize your relationship with federal partners?
A. I’d say the relationship is direct, candid, and mostly cordial. But I wish the federal government, and let’s be specific, DHS more than FEMA, was truly a collaborative body that would work with us before they visited a bunch of policies on us.
One of the problems with DHS is there isn’t a lot of professional expertise there yet, nor an awareness of a decision’s impact on the local and state level. Often you get on a conference call, they tell you what they’re going to do, and you say, “Wait a minute, that doesn’t make any sense.” The next thing you hear is, “Hey, we had collaboration.” Their idea of collaboration is telling us what they’re going to do three days or a week beforehand. That’s not collaboration. That’s just telling us, “Here it is, eat it.”
As a public safety community, we’ve gotten progressively tired of that. We’re the ones who have to live with the stuff, and we shouldn’t let someone do something that’s going to waste our time, waste our resources, or misdirect policies meant to protect people.
Another problem is the reliance on contractors. There’s a deeply held philosophical belief on the part of the current administration that contractors are the answer because they make government smaller. They don’t. They just make more work for the government that exists. They just come in and ask you to do all the work for them. And that leaves some career professionals resentful.
I’ll give you an example from TOPOFF II in 2003. Most exercises focus on response but stop short of recovery. So I suggested we spend one day on recovery. My counterpart from King County agreed. Then the contractor said, “Why would you need to recover?” I said, “Well, there’s going to be an economic impact.” He said, “How would you determine that?” I said, “Jeez, I think I’d find an urban economist.” He said, “Where would you find one?” I said, “I don’t know, the University of Washington?”
They did not know the first thing about what they were there to do. The contracting bill for that exercise was $10 million or $11 million. We didn’t get much money for it, but they did.
Q. Can you discuss your agency’s new corporate relations function?
A. It focuses on response and recovery. We hired a specialist who worked for FEMA, for Washington Mutual, and then for Microsoft. We told her we want to utilize our corporate partners in a mutually beneficial way to help us in responses without compromising their profit-making motive. We just want to use them as corporate citizens to the extent that they are comfortable.
The second phase, which we’re not quite at yet, is establishing plans to speed recovery after an event. We share an interest in getting the schools open, getting people back to work, getting the ships loaded and underway, and getting the roads open. And while other regions of the country would help us, they’d also take our business in a heartbeat. I heard a few years ago that the port of Kobe, Japan, was still only at 70 percent of what they had before their earthquake in 1995.
In the last year we have developed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Puget Sound Energy. They have someone here during power outages, which really is helpful.
We have other MOUs in the works, but we’re also working with people absent MOUs. During recent floods, General Motors’ OnStar was linked up with the state Department of Transportation, and bulletins were transmitted right to people in their cars when freeways were flooded so we could re-route traffic. I don’t know if that’s ever been done before.
The Association of Washington Businesses has people in our emergency operations center every time we activate our emergency-response efforts. They’ve also trained staff so that, when we issue press releases, we’re including information relevant for businesses, say, to help them decide whether to open the next day. With their representatives here with us, we’re much more sensitized to what they need to know.
Q. Have any recent exercises or responses produced valuable lessons?
A. There was Sound Shake ‘08, an earthquake exercise out of Seattle’s Urban Area Security Initiative region. We devoted an entire day after the main event to recovery. We talked a lot about the importance of getting schools opened first, because it seems to be the trigger so parents can focus on rebuilding or getting assistance while the kids are in school. Recovery, I think, is where most jurisdictions are at risk, because people aren’t going to blame you for an earthquake, but they’ll sure wonder why you weren’t ready for it.
Q. What are your agency’s top goals going forward?
A. Along with refining our corporate-relations program, I want to continue to push our nationally recognized Map Your Neighborhood program through which communities plan and assess needs together to prepare for emergencies. I also want to make sure that we are consistently cross-training our staff for jobs they would have during a response. Someone managing a grant might get pulled off that and tasked with logistics or administration. At the same time I’m encouraging other state agencies to loan personnel for responses and for the requisite training. It’s important to expand our capability, because if we have a major earthquake, we won’t be looking at just a two-week response but at a response of two months at full-bore capacity.