Interview with Ken Murphy, director of Oregon Emergency Management.
Ken Murphy has served as director of Oregon Emergency Management (OEM) since 2003 and has headed the state’s Office of Homeland Security since 2005. Murphy began his career in public service with the Oregon Army National Guard in 1970 while an employee of the Levitz Furniture Corporation in Portland. In 1980, Murphy entered full-time service with the U.S. Army as an active duty Guard/Reserve officer. His assignments included work as chief of the Army’s European Crisis Action Team, and director of military support to civilian authorities for the Oregon Guard. Murphy retired from active military service in April 1999 and joined the OEM staff. He earned his bachelor’s degree in management and communications from Concordia University in Portland. Murphy is president of the National Emergency Management Association.
Q. What are your responsibilities? What’s a typical day or week like?
A. In Oregon we’ve combined homeland security and emergency management in one shop. We look at terrorism as very serious, but we take an all-hazards approach and consider it along with natural threats.
We’ve broken emergency management down into financial and recovery services; plans and training; and technology and response, which includes 911 management, emergency communications, and search and rescue. Our fourth and final section is rather narrow in scope, but Oregon has an Army chemical weapons depot in Umatilla. Like depots across the United States, they’re in the process of destroying the chemical weapons from World War II and the Cold War era. We had about 3,700 tons of VX, sarin, mustard gas, and those types of things. So I have an office in Eastern Oregon that’s responsible for the preparedness of the adjoining communities in case we have an accident or the chemicals leak.
Most of my day, I’m out visiting my constituents whether it be a mayor, a police chief, a fire chief, a county commissioner, or other state agencies, trying to help them with their plans and procedures, addressing their general concerns. I also spend a lot of my time going to meetings with organizations and government officials, trying to promote the business of emergency management.
Q. What assets and threats do you focus on?
A. Oregon is not exactly a high-threat state for terrorism, but I worry about the threat of terrorism.
With the chemical depot, my biggest fear lies with the process of the destruction. A terrorist attack would be very, very difficult if not impossible. But my fear is that something could go wrong, and one of these gases could get out.
Close behind is the threat of a large earthquake here in Oregon. There’s a major subduction zone very close to the coast, so we think about that greatly, and spend a lot of time addressing issues associated with a major earthquake and tsunami.
The good news in Oregon is that we have not had a lot of really bad disasters, and the bad news is we have not had a lot of really bad disasters. That leads us to sometimes forget. I always try to get out and teach and preach, and keep it in the forefront of people’s minds.
Q. How has your background helped you on the job?
A. I started out in the private sector, in the retail furniture industry. I bring that up because it taught me how to deal with people, and how to sell things.
Then, the two final jobs I had in the military were the most valuable. I was chief of the crisis action team for headquarters Europe, which really gave me an incredible sense of how complicated emergency management can be. What you do in one country is not necessarily what you do in another country. There are different protocols; there are different customs and ways of life.
Then for my final assignment before I retired, I came back to Oregon as director of military support to civil authorities, which really was the same job I had in Europe, but totally focused on the state of Oregon.
Emergency management really does a lot of the same things as the military, just without the uniform. We plan, we train, we equip, we think and plan tactically and strategically for an unknown enemy, whether it’s a fire, a flood, an earthquake. So the military gave me a strong foundation in emergency management.
Q. What’s your biggest challenge on the job?
A. One of the toughest things is balancing needs. In Oregon you have 36 counties, 247 cities, and 117 state agencies. Eastern Oregon is rural, while in the west we have counties that are densely populated. Every region is important, but you still have to determine who gets what money and what priorities.
I would add that when you’re in the military, people instantly, to some extent, accept you based on your rank and position. In government, it takes a lot longer to build relationships. What I do with one set of county commissioners may take a day or two, then I may go to the next county a couple miles up the road and it may take me six months. Then every few years you have elections and a whole new group of people. So that teaching and preaching process never ends.
Q. How would you characterize the state’s relationship with the federal government?
A. With FEMA, I think our relationship is very good. I’m very proud of it, and we work very closely with our local FEMA offices and the regional offices.
Our relationship with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) at the national level has been stressful. I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that. But I believe DHS has had some epiphanies that things other than terrorism can cause just as many problems, and they’re starting to understand the all-hazards approach. I just hope that we don’t change our minds too many more times; that we just continue to do the right things so the country can be better prepared.
Q. What are some of state’s struggles with DHS?
A. I think initially—and I don’t mean this as a criticism—but there was so much money given out, and I’m not sure we spent it all wisely. It’s taken a couple years, to use the old analogy, to get the horse back in front of the cart. And with all of these grant requirements, it is becoming an incredibly paper-driven process and we are almost spending more time on the process than we are on disaster preparedness. I’m not sure there’s a perfect solution, but we are working with DHS to try and reduce the process.
Q. Is your office working with the private sector? If so, how?
A. We are doing a great deal with the private sector, and I wish I had more people on my staff because there are just so many issues that we have to deal with. We have used the National Infrastructure Protection Plan as a starting point, and we’ve taken each of its 17 sectors and begun putting groups into place to help address the issues of notification, response, and recovery. It’s a huge task when you start working with the private sector.
Q. Have any recent drills or exercises produced significant lessons?
A. We do tsunami evacuation drills quite often, and they have clearly been eye-openers, even down to the simplest thing, which is teaching people how to evacuate during a tsunami. The general reaction is to get in your car and drive. But your best bet is to get out of your car and walk to high ground. You could have 10, 15 minutes, maybe even less. Those are the toughest drills that we do in keeping people focused on how important it is. We’ve found how difficult it really is to notify every single person, especially tourists and visitors. Plus, that presents some thorny issues with your tourist commission and your businesses, because they don’t want to scare tourists away.
Q. What is your top goal for the coming year?
A. One goal I have every year is to continue pursuing our education campaign, to keep people thinking about being prepared at the personal, the family, and the business level for disasters, and make that campaign as intense as I can make it.
The second goal is long-term recovery, not five to ten days after the event but one month to ten years later. We’re using Hurricane Katrina as a model, thinking through land use planning, economic development, and jobs.