Urban Area Perspective - Denver

By Joseph Straw

Q. What do you see as a major success in the homeland security mission, either regionally or nationally?

A. One thing I think this region, the city and this region do very well is its level of collaboration on emergency management and homeland security. Take our two governing bodies, with one more focused on a narrow geographic footprint. It would be very easy in a scenario like that to expect tension and conflict with the Denver UASI program doing its own thing and keeping all the money for Denver in its own silo of planning and homeland security activities. But that’s not the case. It was very eye-opening coming here to see the level of collaboration with the largest cities in the metro area, working very closely with some of the smallest most rural areas, and there’s a joint common understanding of the needs of both, and agreement on a process of how funds get distributed and how planning takes place. So I guess I would say the regional collaboration—which is a national priority—has really been a great success. And I think events like the DNC really give testament to the fact that there is strong regional collaboration in place.

Q. Is fiscal sustainability a challenge? If so, how are you addressing it?

A. Obviously it is a challenge. Within the city and county there certainly are initiatives that you take a look at and realize we’re not going to be able to establish this kind of program. So it’s really caused us to take a look at things that we want to achieve, like upgrades in technology, upgrades in notification systems and emergency warning and things like that, and realize that we’re going to have to stretch them out and do these programs in phases. I mean the entire staff of the City and County of Denver had their wages frozen, we’ve had layoffs this past year, and we’re all taking furlough days. So the economic situation has not only hit our programs and things we want to do, it’s just hit our overall operational level. We’ve all had to have target savings within our budgets, there have been cuts, so basically what that’s forced us to spread costs out. We’re obviously hoping for an increase, and hoping that we’re going to see an economic recovery that will allow us to bring to fruition some of these projects that we have.
On the external side, on grants management, agencies are taking second looks and seeing what’s appropriate to apply for. It’s been recommended that when agencies apply for grant funding for projects, that they provide a match to the project, but certainly that’s something that’s become more difficult for a lot of these entities. Through the joint grant planning that we’ve done across the region we’re able to leverage these different grant opportunities for common regional projects instead of trying to put everything in one basket. And now, some jurisdictions might not apply for things because they don’t know that it can be sustained once a grant cycle ends. So it is a challenge, and we’re trying to leverage the opportunities that we have as best as we can, but there’s no easy answer to it.

Q. How is your office’s relationship with the federal government? What would you change about it, if anything?

A. We actually work together very closely. One nice thing about in Denver, as I indicated before, is the Denver Federal Center, so we work very closely just because of our proximity to our partners at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and DHS. We routinely see our regional federal partners from FEMA Region VIII, and have a very close relationship with them. In fact there are a number of initiatives that we, as an office have undertaken with FEMA Region VIII, including the development of incident management teams (IMTs) for the entire FEMA Region. We’re trying to develop an IMT concept that can be applied across all eight states of FEMA Region VIII. So we’ve been able to engage in some creative and innovative programs like that. We have a very strong FEMA Region VIII interagency steering committee here, so we’re very happy with FEMA Region VIII and their willingness to work with the state and locals. We’ve had nothing but success with them.
The grant side and working with our DHS folks at headquarters in Washington, I would say is also positive. They’ve been very responsive, and from a UASI perspective I will say that even though there will be little issues raised—we may not agree with certain grant guidance from year-to-year or issues that are put in there—but they certainly have provided opportunities and they’ve been very responsive to the state and locals and so I’m very appreciative and happy about that relationship.

Q. Does your office engage the private sector directly? If so, how?

A. A lot of groundwork was laid—again prior to my arrival—for the DNC because that was such an event. I think that provided a great opportunity to start bringing these partners together. Some of the big benefits that came out of the DNC is a common information-sharing platform, and now there’s a policy whereby whenever our EOC activates, we have a private sector member in our EOC. They’re able to provide information and real-time situational awareness to their member groups. That proved to me a big benefit during the DNC and we’ve actually captured that and kept that as our standard operating procedure in the EOC. So at that level, it’s been incredible.
We’ve also been partnering with the private sector in our downtown Business Operators and Managers Association to do joint evacuation planning so that we’re “mirroring up” our partners downtown with the city’s evacuation plan to deconflict those plans and we’re just completing that process right now. We’re going to be doing an exercise later this year with that group. Those are just some of the examples of the initiative.
Now that I have the critical infrastructure piece in our office, that obviously involves the private sector. So we’re going out to our private sector entities, especially in our critical infrastructure sectors, to sit down with them offer a product for vulnerability assessments, and make some suggestions for hardening facilities. It also allows us to do some pre-planning if there were an incident, we’ve already got floor plans, we’ve already identified where we’re going to set up our command post, how we’re going to respond to the scene. Those partnerships really are critical, and there’s no way that I can operate effectively unless I’ve already integrated and I’ve already met my private sector partners. Otherwise I’m going to fail. And so clearly we’re working toward insuring that doesn’t happen.
There’s wonderful groups out here like the Colorado Emergency Preparedness Partnership, which is a statewide consortium of private sector individuals who are interested in emergency management and homeland security, and they’ve been a very strong ally we’ve used to reach out into the private sector to engage in some of these opportunities.
The last thing I’d say is that my counterpart at the state level—the state director of emergency management—and I have been working on a project at a more macro level that covers all missions of homeland security the four pillars of homeland security and how we can integrate the private sector into those. Being from emergency management I may be more concerned about response and recovery, but on the law enforcement side and at our state fusion center, they’re obviously concerned about prevention and protection. How is it that we can come together as government in and of itself and go to the private sector and say, here’s the menu of services we can provide you, and what is it that you need from us. How can we bring those things together to cover all phases of homeland security and emergency management? That we’re working on right now to better integrate at more of a state level, private sector representation.

Q. How has your background informed your current work?

A. My background is in law enforcement. I’m actually from Milwaukee, and I was on the Milwaukee Police Department for a little less than 15 years. I was a lieutenant when I left the department, and when 9-11 happened everybody shifted toward homeland security, and I became the police department’s sort of homeland security and emergency management liaison. I was then appointed by the mayor of Milwaukee several years ago to be the homeland security director for the city. So I left the police department, took that position and did that for a couple of years, managing the Milwaukee UASI grant project back there, and then this opportunity opened up here in Denver and it provided a nice challenge. It was a larger operation a beautiful part of the country, and the dynamic of this region and especially the leadership was very appealing. So I decided to make the move here, and I guess I’m able to bring the experience I had back in Milwaukee.
Even though I’ve grown up in the law enforcement realm, having this position and being able to broker the relationships has really allowed me to see the more holistic picture and to realize that, you know, there are many entities both within the public and private sector that really need to come together to have an effective preparedness program. It’s not that easy to do, and it’s like herding the cats together in a common mission, and that’s the exciting challenge.

Q. What are your goals looking forward?

A. The major goal is further integration of the private sector piece across the four pillars of homeland security. Now that my office has taken on the responsibility of critical infrastructure protection in addition to my traditional emergency management role, how do I approach the private sector and integrate them into all of those phases? That’s a priority for me for this coming year.

We’re also interested in putting together a more cohesive incident management team (IMT), and so we haven’t really gone down that road of forming up interdisciplinary IMTs within the city and county. But there’s commitment to do that now, and that’ll be my major effort for this upcoming year.




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