Interview with Ken Mesch, the administrator of the Disaster and Emergency Services Division of the Montana Department of Military Affairs.
Ken Mesch is administrator of the Disaster and Emergency Services Division of the Montana Department of Military Affairs. Previously, he served as disaster and emergency services coordinator for Stillwater County, Montana. Mesch spent much of his career in public service with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, where worked as an epidemiologist, legislative liaison, federal Superfund program coordinator, emergency response coordinator, later heading the agency’s Emergency Medical Services Division, Consumer Protection Division, and External Affairs office. Before joining state government in Colorado, he worked for the Boulder County Health Department as an environmental health specialist. He sat on the faculty of Denver University’s University College Graduate School, and on the Colorado Commission for Indian Affairs. Mesch earned his Bachelor’s Degree in environmental biology and his Master’s Degree in public administration from the from the University of Colorado and is a graduate of the University of Southern California School of Public Administration’s Environmental Management Institute. Outside work, Mesch enjoys falconry, fishing and playing guitar.
Q. What are your office’s responsibilities?
A. We are the agency that coordinates response and recovery actions for the state of Montana. A lot of our work consists of passing through grant funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to local agencies and make sure they have the resources and information they need. We try to ensure that they’re able to do their best in responding to protect their communities.
Q. What assets and threats make your state unique?
We have a beautiful environment here in Montana. It’s an agricultural state for the most part, and we also are big into tourism, with major national parks and a lot of fishing and hunting opportunities. So our natural environment is probably one of our biggest assets. As such, the threats to our people relate primarily to wildfires. And those wildfires are significant during our fire season, which basically runs from the beginning of the summer until October 1. And during that time period, depending on the weather conditions and incidents of ignition, we have long periods where at least one fire is continually burning somewhere in the state. So it’s a pretty serious time for us. We are getting better at managing that situation in the state with our initial attack resources being beefed up here, and things have gotten better in the last couple of years regarding the influence of wildfires, but of course they still have a big potential for causing trouble here.
Another threat to our state and the people here relates to our weather, specifically severe weather in the form of snow, ice and even rain if there’s flooding activity. So the weather relates to significant potential for problems here in the state.
Q. How has the state’s wildfire response changed?
A. Our policy now is to invest greater effort and resources on an initial attack on a fire while it’s still small. I know that sounds intuitive, but we do that by distributing our air resources around the state and have them ready for a very, very quick attack when the fire is just getting started. We’ve found very helpful in putting out fires that had a big potential for serious impact in residential areas in what we call the wildland-urban interface. In the past couple years we’ve had fires in those areas that we were able to put out quickly, where in prior years fires in the same areas caused devastating damage.
Q. How has your background helped you on the job?
A. I was employed for 32 years in state government in Colorado before I came to Montana, and in that period of time I worked as the division director for Emergency Medical Services and I worked with the federal Superfund program, I had responsibilities for emergency management in Colorado as it related to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and that’s significant because in Denver we had a U.S. Department of Energy atomic bomb plant, basically, called the Rocky Flats Plant , where there was a threat of plutonium release from any kind of an accident, We did a lot of preparation for how that city and how the rest of the state would respond, and I was the coordinator of that effort for a while. So that prepared me and also I have to state that I worked 11 years in local government prior to taking on this job. My time in local government was probably been the most influential regarding my priorities, and that is that the local agencies really are where the action is and where the important activities occur for dealing with emergencies.
Q. What is most challenging about your job?
A. We have a big challenge to rewrite our a state emergency response plan. It hasn’t been updated for a while, and the challenge is coordinating with other state agencies and making sure the plan is comprehensive and effective to prepare us for a major event.
Q. What has surprised you most?
A. I’m surprised that I like it so much. I really do. When I took my current job there was some apprehension about what I was going to be facing, but it has been very enjoyable and I’m very energized by it. I enjoy making the improvements in the program that I think I’m making, and also enjoy experiencing state government in a new state. It’s different, it’s very challenging, and I’m enjoying it a lot.
Q. How would you characterize your office’s relationship with its federal partners? What would you change if you could?
A. I am just really pleased with my relationship with the FEMA regional office, Region VIII. Doug Gore, the acting director administrator of the region, and he and his staff have been incredibly helpful to me as I start this new task of managing this state agency.
Q. Has your office felt the fiscal impact of the current economic crisis? What is your view of your mission’s sustainability?
A. Surprisingly, Montana has really weathered the economic storm well. As a result we have not felt significant negative effects to our budget, which is fortunate. What would we do in the future if things continued to get worse? We would just get better at prioritizing our activities, making sure that what we are doing are the most important things to the people of Montana to protect them and to make them safe.
Q. Has your office engaged the private sector at all? If so, how?
A. We have. We don’t have our own resources to provide to local agencies as they’re dealing with an emergency. Instead, our primary responsibility is to identify resources and make them available, including resources within the private sector. So we maintain lists of private contractors and private sources of supplies, and heavy equipment operators that we utilize to make sure that people can get what they need during an emergency.
In most cases everybody expects to be paid in the end, but I will say that in my experience at the county level a neat thing that happened. There is a platinum and palladium mine called Stillwater Mine mined. During a major fire at the mine, they stepped up the plate and brought in human resources and worked in our information center to disseminate information to the public. They volunteered that, and they volunteered help with mapping activities and satellite download of information about hotspots on the fire. So it was a major player and a major help to our county during an event. That was a good example of public-private partnership.
Q. Have any recent responses or exercises generated valuable lessons-learned?
A. Yes. I discussed Montana’s assets. One of our state’s biggest assets is our residents. They help each other. What I’ve learned about Montanans is, for example, when we have a major disaster, we’ll open up a shelter, but that shelter won’t be utilized. It isn’t be utilized because people are helping one another and welcoming their neighbors into their homes. So that is one major factor in dealing with emergencies and disasters in Montana that has been extremely helpful. They help their neighbor, and people generally don’t look to the government for big handouts during an emergency, they work with each other.
Q. What are your agency’s primary goals for the coming year?
A. Our first priority is helping the local and tribal governments of Montana get the resources and information they need to do their job. Once you recognize that local government is where things actually happen, then you try to push resources including federal dollars to the local level. We have to make sure things aren’t held up at the state level, and make sure everyone in state government realizes their responsibility is to train and exercise with local people to make sure that they have all they need.
Our second priority is to revise our state plan so that we know the state’s ready for any kind of major catastrophe. The third is related to the second one, and that is to develop an incident command force in our agency, so that we could operate an incident command post in the event of a catastrophe in the state.