Urban Area Perspective – Memphis

By Joseph Straw
Robert “Bob” Nations, Jr. is director of the Shelby County, Tennessee Office of Preparedness, which coordinates the homeland security and emergency management missions for the greater Memphis-Shelby County region under the federal Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant program. Nations is a career law enforcement officer and police administrator, beginning his career in 1972. Prior to joining Shelby County, he served as director of homeland security for the state of Mississippi, and served as the state’s chief of operations for homeland security during the response to Hurricane Katrina. Nations serves on the Homeland Security Advisory Board at Daniel Webster College in Nashua, New Hampshire, and works in project management with the University of Mississippi’s Legal Studies Department. Bob is co-author of the text Introduction to Homeland Security and is a frequent speaker at regional and national conferences.

What are the responsibilities of your office?

Our office includes Shelby County Homeland Security and the Memphis/Shelby County Emergency Management Agency. We’re all under the same umbrella. Our UASI region is made up of six counties in three states: four counties in Tennessee, those being Shelby, Tipton, Fayette, and Lauderdale counties. In Mississippi we have DeSoto County and then in Arkansas we have Crittenden County across the Mississippi River to the West. And because we extend into Arkansas, we are involved with the FEMA Region IV here and in Mississippi, and Region VI, which includes Arkansas.

What assets and threats make your region unique?

Within Shelby County we have very large response agencies—large law enforcement agencies, fire services, and EMS—and Memphis/Shelby County is the core of the UASI, and those resources are critical as we reach out to our rural partners and smaller partners. We have a high level of risk here, and of course that’s stated in relative terms, but we have the New Madrid Fault line—obviously that’s always a consideration in our planning—and it’s also a very real consideration in terms of equipment and our training. We’re also very prone to tornadoes in this region. We have the river traffic, we have a large chemical sector here with companies such as DuPont; and we have other global companies such as FedEx and International Paper. So within our industrial base, we a lot of risk factors to consider, particularly if we look at man-caused or criminal acts, and the ability to weaponize assets that are already on the ground.

How does the region plan and prioritize investment of funding?

We have a well-drilled business model that we put into effect in the spring of 2007. We follow the guidance for the UASI that’s issued by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and it’s worked very well. We’ve had some struggles, some growing pains in the early years, but all of that has borne fruit and we have a very vibrant, a very strong governance structure.
Our Urban Area Working Group is the fundamental authority for what we do in the UASI and allocating UASI funds, and it’s a very strong group. The way the governance works is that the Urban Area Working Group, which is made up of representatives from the agencies across the six-county region, meets on a monthly basis and our office simply attempts to fulfill what the Urban Area Working Group votes on. We do offer administrative guidance and compliance structures, but we try to adhere to the directions they want to go. And then once a year, usually in October, we have an annual business meeting in which we vote on the allocation of funds and what projects we are going to undertake. Then, jurisdictions that want to complete an investment justification or project paper will send that into us and then we evaluate whether it would positively affect and strengthen the UASI: Does it follow the guidance and does it fall under the umbrella of approved projects? Then we move forward through Shelby County government with our necessary resolutions and the legislative process.

What is the greatest challenge in your office’s mission?

The educational process. The business community responds very well and the response agencies are very much involved. Yet ongoing education with our senior elected officials is probably one of our biggest challenges. We have to ensure that they understand what each particular emergency function is required to do, how it’s required to do it, and what the end results are, so that if all of that works together we can create a very effective product.


What has been the region’s greatest success?

I think we’ve had a lot of successes here. Our first responders—those agencies are extremely competent. Recently we’ve gone through a tornado with fatalities, we’ve gone through very severe flooding in which millions upon millions of dollars worth of property was lost, and one fatality. So throughout the UASI, as we blend and integrate homeland security and emergency management, we have these incidents that occur, and we find great success because of the interaction that takes place on a very frequent, regular basis.

The other thing that we’ve been very successful at is enhancement of emergency communications and communications interoperability in the systems that we’ve been able to build, and also the advances and enhancements of our information collection and sharing. Those are some real success stories for us.



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