Urban Area Perspective - Keeping Phoenix Ready

Joseph Straw

Michael DeBenedetto is the City of Phoenix’s emergency management coordinator, a post that he has held in the city’s Office of Emergency Management since 2007. As coordinator he has served as the city’s liaison on emergency preparedness issues, has coordinated training programs and emergency operations drills, has assisted city departments with their emergency and mitigation plans, and has coordinated the submittal process for federal and state reimbursement claims for the city’s costs during emergency operations. His office is a member of the city’s Homeland Defense Planning Team along with city’s Fire and Police departments. Prior to joining the Office of Emergency Management, DeBenedetto served 28 years with the city’s police department, reaching the rank of lieutenant. He was a member of the department’s Patrol Division, the Special Investigations Bureau, the Training Academy, the Neighborhood Response Unit, Tactical Support Bureau-Boom and SWAT Operations, the Homeland Defense Bureau, and the chief’s office. DeBenedetto is a 1978 graduate of Northern Arizona University, where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice. He holds his certification in public management from Arizona State University, and his certification as an Arizona police officer from the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board.

Q. What are your office's responsibilities?

A. The Office of Emergency Management is a function of our City Manager’s Office. Its primary responsibilities include maintaining the readiness of our city emergency operations center (EOC), acting as our city’s point of contact for all emergency management business related to natural disasters, maintaining and updating city emergency plans, and administering all homeland security grants.

Q. What major infrastructure assets and threats–natural or manmade–guide the homeland security mission in your city and region?

A. The majority of our critical infrastructure concerns are the same as any large metropolitan area’s. We have communication centers and towers, a nuclear power plant 50 miles west of downtown, large banking and financial centers, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport as well as several municipal airports, light rail hubs, fuel centers, numerous convention centers, and so on. One of our major concerns is the myriad of special events taking place year-round in our metropolitan area.

Q. What is your region’s governance structure, both for general preparedness, and for administration of federal Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) funds?

A. For general preparedness, our community enjoys the benefit of a strong relationship with a well-run Arizona State Division of Emergency Management as well as a top-notch Maricopa County Department of Emergency Management. Both are co-located within the region and are included in all of the city’s preparedness planning efforts.

Most of our 25 regional jurisdictions have an emergency management point of contact, either within their police or fire departments or separately as a stand-alone entity. These entities are further linked by a statewide professional organization, the Arizona Emergency Services Association, as well as an East Valley Emergency Manager’s Association and a West Valley Emergency Manager’s Association. Together we plan for manmade or natural disasters, train our community, and work together to respond to and recover from those incidents.

For the administration of the Phoenix UASI, my office acts as the coordination point and administrator for our region. We enjoy a working group comprised of all 25 jurisdictions covering the three disciplines of fire service, law enforcement, and emergency management. Phoenix originally assumed the role of administrator when, at the federal level, it was designated as the population center core city. Of the 25 jurisdictions, we have used federal funds to enhance the capabilities of the majority of our partners.

Q. What is the biggest challenge your office or region faces in carrying out the homeland security mission, whether operational or administrative?

A. The biggest challenge we face is making limited funding go as far as possible. It is without exaggeration, the most difficult challenge brought to bear on our operation. There is never enough funding to go around, and the sustainment of what we have built will remain a significant challenge long after we recover economically from the current financial situation. In a perfect world, all 37 of the federal target capabilities would be addressed and improved. Instead, we have to determine how best to prioritize the funding to address local risks, and address only a part or portion of that capability list.

Q. What would you characterize as your region’s greatest success in the homeland security mission since 9-11?

A. Certainly, the development of our fusion center. The Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center (AcTIC) has allowed us to collaborate even further with all of our law enforcement and fire service partners throughout our state and nation as a whole. In my opinion, AcTIC has acted as a force multiplier in maximizing tremendous relationships that existed prior to 9-11, and joining them into a common mission in which we are focused on information sharing at all levels of service, not just within the governmental sector. It is a tremendous model that has achieved profound results in our community.

Q. How would you characterize your office's relationship with its federal partners, including grant administration? Would you like to see any changes? If so, what changes?

A. Our relationship is at an all-time high. Our partners at the Department of Homeland Security’s Grant Program Directorate have worked painstakingly hard at focusing on the evolution of homeland security grants. They have created a process that inspires collaboration, that is inclusive of all levels of government, and that is responsive to growth and suggestions throughout the grant period. Each year is better than the last and their responsiveness to our needs is incredibly appreciated.

Q. Is your office working with area businesses to strengthen counterterrorism efforts, or to prepare for emergency response? If so, how?

A. Yes to both. Through our statewide Terrorism Liaison Officer program, we have identified critical infrastructure and key resources that are both public and private and cultivated the information-sharing environment with them. Internal networking among all 18 infrastructure sectors is linked to our fusion center and the information is shared among all of our partners. The progress we have made in this area is unprecedented and we continue to add partners on a weekly basis.

In addition the state, through its Division of Emergency Management, has established a group of business experts who mobilize in times of emergencies and form a private industry equivalent of an EOC. This group, when mobilized, is referred to as the Business Operations Center (BOC) and is designed to supplement the community needs with immediate access to those resources represented. The BOC concept in our community grew out of the numerous hurricanes experienced in the Gulf Region, and is a method by which our extremely valuable private partners contribute to the response and recovery of our community. Their contribution to our safety is one of our most precious assets.

Q. Has your agency gained any significant lessons-learned from recent incidents or drills? If so, what are they?

A. As always, communication–in terms of interagency, interdepartmental, intercity, interstate, and between multiple response disciplines–remains our biggest problem. Not necessarily in terms of communication equipment, but between each other as a method of routine practice or policy. Planning our futures together runs a close second. In the Southwest, a handshake has always been the method by which commitment of resources has been agreed upon. With resources stretched thin, memorandums of understanding or agreement and contractual arrangements are our future. What we can afford to give, and what we are willing to share in large-scale emergencies needs to be re-examined and renegotiated where necessary. As our budget situation forces retraction in fiscal capacity, so too should retraction force us to rediscover our capability to support each other. The last place we need surprises is in our time of need.

Q. What are your office's major goals going forward?

A. Transitional stabilization will be our primary goal. As we do more with less, we need to better understand what our true needs are, who we are dependent and co-dependent on, and what the cost of sustaining our relationship will be. You simply cannot build a viable future without knowing where you stand today. Where we stand today isn’t where we stood yesterday, and communicating this to our partners has never been more important.


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