An interview with James W. Spears, secretary of the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety since 2005.
James W. Spears has served as secretary of the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety since 2005, responsible for 11 divisions of state government including the State Police, National Guard, Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, and Division of Corrections. A member of Gov. Joe Manchin III’s cabinet, Spears is also the governor’s homeland security advisor. Spears served 22 years as an officer in the Army, advising six U.S. ambassadors on various programs overseas, including review, analysis and development of U.S. foreign and economic policy, also coordinating congressional and public affairs for the Defense Intelligence Agency. After retiring from the military, Spears moved to the State Department, where he headed program development and training for the African Crisis Response Initiative, designing and implementing one of the government’s primary assistance programs in Africa. He negotiated with the governments of Kenya, Botswana, Senegal, Malawi, Mali, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Ethiopia, developing peacekeeping assistance and development programs totaling as much as $20 million annually. Spears is a graduate of Davidson College in North Carolina, and later earned his master’s degree in international relations from the University of Southern California. He also attended l’Ecole d’Etat-Major (French General Staff College) in Compeigne, France, and is a distinguished graduate of both Strategic Intelligence Postgraduate Program in Washington, D.C., and the Postgraduate Program for Foreign Area Specialists at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Q. What are your agency’s responsibilities?
A. We have a very good structure. The governor has a cabinet of seven secretaries of which I am one. This particular department has three general areas: military affairs, which includes the state National Guard and Veterans Affairs; and then you have public safety, which includes the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the state Fire Marshall, the Capitol Police, as well as the state administrative agency for the federal Homeland Security Grant Program, Then we have the corrections side of the department, which includes the division of corrections, our regional jail system, and juvenile services and parole services.
So as you can this department has got a wide array of responsibilities, but they all deal somehow with those three broad groupings. The good thing about it is that particularly with the military affairs aspect, where I’m responsible for the National Guard as well as the emergency management/public safety side of it, I’m able to bridge any gaps that might be there in terms of making sure that our public safety-homeland security picture is complete, so we don’t have a lot of stovepipes without an overarching manager.
Q. What assets and threats make your state unique?
A. Well I would say that when you talk about unique, it’s really hard to say that any state is completely unique. I think that most states face similar threats of different types. When it comes to natural threats, we don’t face the concerns that the coastal states face with hurricanes. We don’t face the same concerns that states sitting along different fault lines are facing in their planning for earthquakes. So yes, there are some differences, but I don’t find that any one state that I know of is totally unique.
We have a very robust chemical industry in our state, and because of that we always have to be cognizant of the safety and security of those chemical plants, as well as the potential responses that we might have to make. We also have, like most states, a certain number of locks and dams in our state, and we have to be cognizant of the transportation and economic impact that those assets would have should they be dismantled or disrupted in any way.
But we also have something that is unique to just a handful of states, and that is our proximity to our nation’s capitol. And with that, we know that the nation’s capitol is a natural international terrorist target. And knowing that it is one of the high-priority targets of international terrorism, we have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. And if we look at preparing for the worst, should there be a significant or catastrophic incident in our nation’s capitol, which would be of such magnitude that it could trigger a spontaneous self-evacuation of that capitol region, we’re looking at, with the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area, the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the United States. And given the East Coast location of the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area, evacuees only have north, south and west to go. And as people would spontaneously try to flee such a catastrophic event, say a nuclear incident or a biological or radiological event there, we believe that even if people are planning at first to come into our state, that just due to traffic flow problems that would be generated by self-evacuation that a large number of those people would find their way into our state, We must be prepared to deal with those large numbers of people.
Heretofore, planning had not realty gone much past the general area of the political boundaries of the National Capitol Region. We even looked as far back as a 1959 evacuation map of Washington, D.C., and even back then the evacuation routes and plans had the routes only going to the borders of West Virginia, and then magically everyone just disappears. And what we now realize, particularly in light of Hurricane Katrina, is that everybody doesn’t just disappear. And what we’ve also realized from Katrina, which we knew about beforehand, is that anybody that would be evacuating in such large numbers, there would be special-needs requirements, there would be requirements regarding how we might provide medical care necessitated by the catastrophic event, or that might be ongoing care for people. We know that they would have to have certain housing or sheltering capability, etc. It’s like if all of a sudden if you had a house that was built for your family of four, and then all of a sudden 400 people arrived and said that they were going to spend the night. Not only that, but the possibility that they were going to stay for a week or two. How would you house them? How would you feed them, etc?
So we recognize that it would be a daunting task, and we have been going through planning processes to think through these tasks and come up with solutions for the last three to four years. We also recognize that it’s not unique to our state and that in fact anything that we are planning in West Virginia we need to be coordinating with our neighbor states. Because anything of that magnitude would be a regional event, and we recognize that we’re just one of those states in that regional event that if we can’t coordinate our efforts, then we can make all the best plans in the world, but if it’s not collaborated and coordinated with those that would either be feeding into us or we would be feeding people into, then those plans could not possible stand up to the sustained level of success that we would originally have hoped for.
So those are some of the things when I say “make our state unique, I think what makes us unique is that we were the first state to really think about this at the level necessary, and that we took our concerns to the federal level before Katrina hit, and we took our concerns about dealing with large numbers of evacuees to the federal FEMA and to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and we were basically told from various offices, “Don’t worry about it.” And the state of West Virginia just didn’t take that as an answer, and we kept pursuing it, and kept pushing it, and saying, “We need to be prepared to help fellow Americans.” And not only do we as a state need to be prepared, but we need to make sure that businesses are prepared to handle this, that we need to make sure that government agencies are able to handle this.
So we kept up the drumbeat, and lo and behold, Katrina hit, and all of a sudden people said, “Oh, hadn’t West Virginia been saying this all along?” So we’re saying what makes a state unique? I think what makes a state unique is that we recognized that as a state, we recognized before it was put in the front pages all across the nation and the world.
Q. What are the major elements of the state’s plan to handle evacuees from the National Capitol Region?
A. People say, “Well where is the plan for handling this evacuation?” Well I will be the first to say that there isn’t one plan because it is such a diverse topic that has to be handled at so many levels, that it is a process that is bringing us the benefit, the planning process itself. We have our state emergency operations plan, which provides certain standards and framework within which we work, and that helps provide emergency points of contact and certain duties and responsibilities in the state government and up and down from the state level. But what the real benefit that I see in terms of our planning and the cornerstone if that we have recognized that at the state level, we cannot build the plans at the local level, that it really takes local working in coordination with us to build a series of plans at the local level that then make this overall response capability. And it’s these series of plans that we’re looking at as our cornerstone.
In order to make sure that they are in fact being put together, coordinated, and that collaboration is taking place at that level, we are funding regional coordinators for homeland security. We’ve broken up our state into six homeland security regions. And these coordinators are not there to write the plans for the local levels. But what they are there for is to help coordinate the various entities involved: the public health entities, the political entities, the emergency management entities, etc., so that they are talking to one another and they are working in a collaborative manner to build the plan that is right for their region, and they are also serving as the link back to us so that we can provide them guidance from the state and federal level as they build those plans.
Q. How would you characterize your state’s relationship with its federal partners? How would you change it if you could?
A. Like any relationship, it matures over time. When DHS was established in 2003, since then it has had to go through a huge growth spurt, and adaptation of responsibilities in a very short period of time. And so any time you have such a huge agency being built under the circumstances under which it was built on such a large level, naturally you’re going to have certain hiccups along the way. I would say our concerns over the evacuation of the National Capitol Region was one of those concerns that they weren’t able to address very well at the beginning.
I would also say though that one of the beauties of dating somebody is that you get to know them much, much better with each date. And as we’ve gone through this dating process at the federal level, between not only West Virginia and the federal government but all of the states I think have gotten to know the players, the interaction at the federal level much better, and I would say that it has improved significantly from its earlier days until now. I think that they recognize that there is no state that is insignificant, that there are good people with good ideas in all states and they need to be cognizant of those good ideas, and be willing to listen to those good ideas. So I would say that it was rocky at first but has gotten considerably better with time.
Q. Has your agency engaged the private sector in any elements of its mission? If so, how?
A. I would say that we have engaged the private sector as part of our normal emergency management operations. The director of our Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management primarily focuses on emergency management, regardless of its title. But because it has taken on the emergency management role and does manage our emergencies so well—and we’ve had a plethora of natural disasters over the last ten years that have included flooding, ice storms, mining disasters, barges going into locks and disrupting river traffic, etc. So we’ve had a wide gamut of emergencies that we’ve had to manage. But our emergency management team is so good that they have built these relationships with private industry over the course of the past many years really in response to all of these different natural disasters in most cases that have occurred and because of this we have a lot of that interaction with our private sector already in place.
Q. How is your agency maintaining capability given the decline in federal grant funding and the current financial crisis?
A. The state of West Virginia received, under the Homeland Security Grant Program—which is our principal one—in 2003, $23 million. In 2004 $24 million. In 2005 $18 million, in 2006 $13 million, in 2007 $6 million, in 2008 $6 million…so I think that you can see what the trend is. I think that you can see that we recognize that the moneys being dedicated for homeland security are not necessarily coming down to all the states in the same levels that they were initially. With that in mind, we put certain things into place in those initial better years of money-flow into the states, that now we’re having—and I would say that this administration wasn’t in place in those initial years—but we’re having to deal with how do we maintain those systems that were purchased then.
I’ll give you a case in point. We were encouraged to build these regional response team trucks in those early years to deal with hazardous materials. So we built up a system of regional hazmat response teams. And a lot of this was with the encouragement of DHS. Well these trucks are extremely expensive. But not only are the trucks expensive, but all of the equipment that goes on all of the trucks in extremely expensive, and this equipment has limited lifespan. And so we put the trucks out there, we put the system out there, and now people are used to having that capability and it is a very essential capability, but who pays to replace all of the equipment, all of the suits, all of the paraphernalia that is associated with that, in order to have the same level of capability that we’ve now grown accustomed to, and that we need…tires batteries, etc., gasoline. So it’s a problem for us, and when I pointed out $27 million the first year, $28 million in the second year, and now down to $6 million? That’s a huge difference. And at the same time I will also say that we are realizing at the national level more and more of our gaps in capability, and as we recognize those gaps more and more, we recognize different programs which may be needed to recognize those gaps. So as we start these new programs, you might have the same levels or increased amounts of money going to homeland security in general, but all of those monies are not coming back down to the states at the same levels as in the past.
Q. So are cuts being made?
A. We have not scaled back. What we’ve tried to do is be smarter with what we have. And there’s a big distinction there, in that we have tried to make sure that we use training and exercise money as wisely as possible, so that if we have to exercise we do so, and if there’s a real-world incident, we try to combine the two together. We also have tried to touch upon any associated help that might be provided, either through local level or special revenues, anything of those natures where we aren’t relying just on our state’s general revenue funds, but that we are also looking at other ways to fund these programs to keep that high level of readiness.
Q. How has your personal background helped you on the job?
A. I do think that there is certain benefit to having served in the military. I think that it gives a person an ability to compartmentalize, while at the same time looking at a broader scope. And I also believe that you don’t just accept the first answer. With my military and intelligence background, you often have to hear the first answer, but then look for the real answer. And I think that has helped me in not just accepting certain departments at the federal level saying oh, yes, we’ve got things under control, when in fact I kept probing and they did not. And so I think that has helped me. And I also believe that to manage a department this broad, the management expertise that the military provided was also beneficial.
Q. What is the biggest challenge of your job?
A. I’d say with any problem you’ve got certain things that you look at. You look at your goals and mission, and then you look at the resources that you have to match that, and keeping your mission in line with the resources that are being provided and the personnel that are being provided. I think that balance is what’s really difficult. And when I say “resources” that runs the whole gamut. And I know personnel are a resource but I keep them separate because it’s not only having enough people, but having the right people in the right positions.
Q. What has surprised you on the job?
A. The biggest surprise I guess is that not everybody shares my same conviction of wanting to do the best thing for not just themselves in their personal little fiefdom, but that they don’t share the same vision of wanting to always do the best thing for the state and the nation.
Q. What valuable lessons has your agency taken from any recent drills or exercises?
A. What’s interesting is that the state doesn’t do a lot of statewide exercises. As a matter of fact we conducted our first what you could call statewide exercise last year with the Coalition Warrior Interoperability Demonstration in 2007. It was a Department of Defense-driven exercise where they look for new and innovative scenarios to test new and innovative technologies for interoperability and communications. When they briefed us on this, we presented the evacuation of DC, and they hadn’t heard of this before, and they asked if we would be willing to put that scenario in play.
So we did, and in fact it had an international flavor to it because we were connected in some ways to I think Australia and Canada, and as well as other states here in the United States. What was unique about it for the state was that we put out a request that anybody who wished to play at the local level, and all 55 counties, we invited them to participate. Some accepted, some didn’t. But we did have a large number participate in one fashion or another at various levels. And it’s hard to organize a real statewide exercise. And in that particular exercise, though, we learned a lot of good lessons.
One of the things that we learned was that we needed more command and control emergency management computer and software system (E-team) training. Emergency managers weren’t really as familiar with the emergency management computer and software tools that we have to manage from a state and local level. People want an exercise to show how good they are doing, and what we tried to tell them was that the intent of that exercise is to highlight areas where you might have some shortcomings, so we can look at what areas we need to concentrate on to make stronger. And so, that exercise did show us that we had some communications command and control concerns, and we’ve taken the steps that we need to up until now to try and improve upon those. We’ve enhanced E-team training around the state, which was largely the result of the need that was demonstrated through that particular statewide exercise. So that’s a very tangible thing that I can point to.
Q. What are your agencies goals for the coming year?
A. Given the fact that the department is as diverse as it is, we have a lot of different goals for each of the different divisions. If I could summarize it I would say for our department our goal is to continue to keep our state as safe as possible. That just breaks it down into one simple phrase. But also, to be as ready and capable to respond should there be a need to do so. To make our citizens as safe as they can and any other citizens who might come into our state.
We have a lot of ongoing projects that will head us toward that overall goal. Some of those projects: we are engaged in a modeling and simulation computer program that is being discussed at a very broad level. We have had people from Australia and England, and all across the United States come to talk to us about our vision of what we want in this modeling and simulation program. But it in essence would be a tool that would have all of the data that would allow us to not only have all of our datasets in a system, but it would be a self-refreshing system so that the datasets remain current.
And it would also be a system that would allow different levels of command and control to exercise and train within the same system with the flick of a switch could be used to do real-world command and control aspect of a disaster. So we are in the process of the initial stages of building that system for our state. We’ve called it CatEvac, or catastrophic evacuation program. We’ve also called it the Westward Migration Simulation Program.
But at the same time we are looking at trying to build a similar system which would be, let’s say, an outlet plug, because we know that other states have pieces of different simulation and modeling systems around, and what we would do is, we would look to be able to plug those systems into this outlet plug, and it would allow us all to be connected so that we would all be operating on the same terminology, the same protocols, and be able to share data as necessary and in similar formats. And we would be able to train and exercise and command and control all of the same systems.
Datasets would be things like mass care facilities, refueling sites, decontamination locations, major evacuation routes, fuel sites, the stockpile sites, etc. Those types of assets would all be kept current and constantly refreshed so that we would know really what we have on hand at any one second.