A conversation with North Carolina's top emergency manager.
Interview with H. Doug Hoell
Doug Hoell began his emergency management career in 1976 with Raleigh-Wake County Emergency Preparedness, then moved on to the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management (NCEM), serving as a trainer and later an operations officer. He worked at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) before returning to NCEM in 1997, becoming assistant director in 1998 and director in 2005. (His remarks have been edited to accommodate space limitations. Read the full interview online .)
CAN YOU GIVE OUR READERS A SENSE OF YOUR PRIMARY RESPONSIBILITIES AND WHAT A TYPICAL DAY OR WEEK IS LIKE?
My responsibilities are first and foremost to serve as leader of North Carolina’s emergency response team. And my function takes into account everything from preparation for grand-scale disasters to the organization of the response to the long-term recovery: everything from natural disasters to potential technological disasters to even the unthinkable—the terrorism events.
WHAT ARE THE TOP ISSUES YOU FOCUS ON?
One of my top issues is mutual aid. In all honesty I believe that mutual aid is the key to our success. And when I say that, I think that there’s no way in today’s world that every city or county—or state government for that matter—can have all the resources that they’re going to need in response to grand-scale disasters.
HOW HAS YOUR BACKGROUND HELPED YOU IN YOUR CURRENT JOB?
Well, I’ve spent my whole career—30 years—in the emergency management business. I’ve worked at the local level. I’ve worked at the federal level. So I have a sense of how we relate to the federal level and how they relate back to us. So I have a well-rounded experience. It’s given me a lot of different perspectives, and allows me to function as a state director with a sense of where everybody’s coming from.
WHAT'S THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF YOUR JOB?
The biggest challenge would be getting everybody to understand that we’re all part of a significant team effort, and there has to be leadership that stands forward and leads the whole team to do things, even in incidents that aren’t necessarily big disasters.
WHAT KIND OF COOPERATION DO YOU GET FROM THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT?
We deal pretty directly with FEMA Region 4, and they have been a quality group of people. I just think they’re giving it all that they’ve got to try to fix things that they believe need to be fixed and bring the right people together.
IF YOU COULD CHANGE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT HOW WOULD YOU?
I would change how programs and monies are rolled out. I would make sure that we had more lead time for planning. I know it’s an effort in progress, and consequently there are short lead times, and there is a “hurry-up and go” to invest this money, but I think that if we had more lead time and could do quality planning on where we wished to invest the homeland security dollars that are coming, then better quality jobs could be done.
HOW DO THE SOURCES OF YOUR BUDGET AND SPENDING BREAK DOWN?
Our state funds are for our personnel and our operating costs. The federal dollars have contributed to trying to build mobile components. I’m a firm believer in building mobile capability. Build components, but make sure that whatever components you build, if they’re not needed in a particular city, they can be moved to another through mutual aid.
WHAT HAS THE STATE LEARNED FROM HURRICANES, AND HOW DOES IT HELP IN OTHER AREAS?
I think we have a well-defined system and a lot of that has grown out of our response to hurricanes. It certainly works for us. We have divided the state of North Carolina into three geographical regions: basically an eastern region, which is our coastal plain; a central region, which is our Piedmont; and a western region, which is our mountains. And for each region, we have a central office that becomes a regional coordination center whenever we activate for threats or actual events in the state. Those regional coordination centers have to file an incident action plan with our state emergency operations center, and we commit to them physical resources, and they can dispatch those resources as need be to respond to incidents or emergencies that are happening within their area of responsibility.
HAS THE STATE CONDUCTED ANY EXERCISE? WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED?
We have done exercises, including one this past spring on pandemic flu. That’s new territory for all of us. I can’t say to you that we solved every problem, but we’re following up and we’re looking to potentially do more exercises. It’s a different environment when you consider that as many as 40 percent of your employees may or may not show up for work either because they think that they’re going to get the flu or they’ve actually contracted it. So it presents significant challenges..
WHAT ARE YOUR AGENCY'S GOALS FOR THE COMING YEAR?
We want to build a credentialing program for our emergency managers in this state, and, parallel to that, offer college credit and perhaps even degrees on up to bachelor’s degrees at our universities if they choose. We want to continue to work on the mutual-aid program, and one of our focus areas is going to be packaging and typing of resources. That’s something that simply has to be done, and we’re going to take it on as a serious challenge this year and see how much we can accomplish.