Urban Area Perspective – Memphis

By Joseph Straw

Is fiscal sustainability a challenge? If so, how is your region adapting?

 Certainly the economy has had an impact. In terms of our homeland security program we have remained at a fairly constant funding level. The place that hurts the most is on the local revenue side, where budgets are under very, very tight scrutiny.


How would you characterize your office’s relationship with its federal partners? What, if anything, would you change about that relationship?

 All in all we have a good relationship, but one has to understand how various levels of government perceive these relationships. The local level is where it all happens and where it all originates, and those jurisdictions can easily be buried in bureaucracy between the federal and state levels. If the federal agencies have a perception that their partner is the state, then you can have a huge breakdown in what is achievable at a local level of government. And it goes beyond personal relationships. You can have good “people” relationships but if the ideology and the administrative protocols cause a breakdown, then there’s a breakdown. And that’s a huge challenge. We have a good working relationship with each level. All of that is dependent on federal and state officials’ perceptions of their roles in partnering with local government. And that oftentimes becomes a huge frustration if you don’t have a supportive state government or if you have a disconnect with your federal partners.


How does your region coordinate its public-private partnerships?

In our UASI we are very, very aggressive with public-private partnerships. We just finished last week a workshop—a summit—with 100 private business people and that was sponsored by Verizon Communications so that we could begin working with small- to medium-size businesses in contingency planning and then risk management principles. And so that was a very successful workshop for us. We have a longstanding partnership with the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce on continuity of operations and bringing that group of businesspeople together to talk about preparedness. So we’re forging very strong partnerships. The Assisi Foundation of Memphis has been very, very supportive at facilitating both the nonprofit and the business community into a partnership, and so we feel really good about the direction we’re headed. We’re not where we want to be yet, but we have invested a lot of our funding into building that partnership and to building joint contingency plans between public and private entities.


Have any recent responses or exercises generated valuable lessons-learned?

Unfortunately since February of 2008 we’ve had many real missions that called for multi-jurisdictional, multi-discipline response, and so although we have had drills and tabletops to test our communications capability, our interoperability capabilities, the real-world incidents have caused us to rehearse so much of our system that it’s almost a benign thing to talk about exercises versus our real-world incidents at this point.

But we do participate in the national exercises and we do, throughout the year participate in the seismic drills exercises and conferences, workshops, etc. And on the local basis we have a partnership with the Medical Education & Research Institute, or MERI, which is based in Memphis and does extensive exercises, particularly as it relates to casualties and fatalities. We have a strong and growing relationship with them for simulation training and do those on a frequent basis.

Every one of our incident responses gives us lessons-learned. I’ve been in public safety through law enforcement for now going on 39 years. I don’t think there’s an incident that you respond to that you don’t walk away with lessons learned. You can evaluate and assess what you did well, and we do many things well, but we also learn from each incident, the things that we can enhance and ways we can improve. So each one of those incidents, the tornado that caused fatalities, the flooding that damaged so much property, we have valuable lessons learned from communications to basic response. We are constantly in motion at enhancing those.

What are your offices primary goals going forward?

Our major goal in everything we do is to prevent what we can prevent. To accomplish that we’ll continue to enhance our interoperable communications and our information-sharing capability, so that through data collection and our intel work we can prevent man-caused incidents. The second goal is to do all we can to respond to incidents we can’t prevent. For that we’ve got to prepare communities to survive, so we have very aggressive programs for our citizens for them to develop basic survival skills, to not only help themselves but to help their neighbors, their churches, and their community.

Prevention is our major thrust, and that may sound simplistic, but so much is involved in prevention, we believe that if we have a solid prevention, comprehensive program, then our response and recovery will be much more effective.

How does your professional background inform your current work?

 I’m a career law enforcement officer and over the span of 31 years you just build on your experiences. I’ve also been involved in teaching at universities and have been author and co-author of three books, the latest one being a textbook on homeland security, and so I think that our personal and professional experiences play into our ability to make decisions and, after a while I think that it becomes part of our own nature and makeup—the ability to make quick assessments and to just simply be competent in your field of practice.



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