Security Management interviews Rich Flannery, emergency management administrator at Virginia's Hampton Roads Planning District Commission.
Rich Flannery is emergency management administrator at Virginia’s Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, where he oversees management of grants provided under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) regional Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) program. Prior to taking that post in April 2008, Flannery worked as a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive medical specialist with government and research contractor Battelle. In that position he worked with federal agencies including DHS and the departments of Defense and Health and Human Services, as well as state agencies in a variety of emergency management projects involving both the healthcare and public health sectors. His work focused on planning and preparedness as well as administration of the Strategic National Stockpile of inoculations and medicines. Before joining Battelle, Flannery served 22 years in the U.S. Navy, retiring as a senior chief hospital corpsman. During his Navy career he served as a preventative medicine technician on the combat support ship USS Seattle, and on two Los Angeles-class submarines: the USS Atlanta and the USS Jacksonville. Flannery received his Bachelor of Science degree in environmental health from Virginia’s Old Dominion University in 2003, and his Master of Science in emergency management from Alabama’s Jacksonville State University in 2007.
Q. What are your office’s responsibilities?
A. Well we are a regional planning commission for 16 jurisdictions here in southeast Virginia—both cities and counties. We’re not an authoritative body, just a planning entity. When this region was designated as part of DHS’s UASI initiative in 2007, all the counties and cities that are part of the Planning District footprint decided that our organization was the logical entity to administer the UASI program. So basically we stood up the UASI for this region, and administer the funds.
Q. What assets and threats—natural or manmade—make your area unique?
A. As far as natural threats, for us the biggest thing here is hurricanes and tropical storms. Along with hurricanes there’s a storm surge and flooding. Outside of that we get a normal occurrence of occasional winter weather and occasional tornadoes, but hurricanes are the primary threat.
What makes us unique down here is that we’re host to country’s largest naval base, Naval Station Norfolk, and we’ve got the country’s the highest concentration of military activity across the region. And that’s not just the Navy, it’s the Marine Corps as well as Air Force and the Army. So they’re a big component, and at our port we have not only the aircraft carriers and the submarines that are stationed here, but also the two shipyards that build and service them: the Norfolk Navy Yard and Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding.
Anyone who’s been down here knows that we’re all connected by bridges and tunnels. We’re those areas that if we lost one of those bridges or tunnels it would have catastrophic repercussions. In fact one of our tunnels, the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel closed this year for eight hours right before the Fourth of July holiday on account of weather-related flooding, and it caused some large problems for transportation in our region. And that was a natural incident, let alone any purposeful threat to the tunnel.
Q. What is your professional background and how has it informed your current work?
A. Well I did 22 years in the Navy, so I’ve got a great deal of operational experience from that, because I spent the majority of my career deployed on operational platforms. Prior to taking this position I worked as a contractor doing emergency management and homeland security work for various agencies within the federal government as well as state agencies. And then on top of it I’ve got a Master’s Degree in emergency management, and that helps.
Q. How are Hampton Roads UASI funds administered?
A. We formed an Urban Area Working Group as most UASIs do, but rather than create new committees and new subcommittees, the Urban Area Working Group we used existing committees and associations throughout Hampton Roads like the Regional Emergency Management Technical Advisory Committee, the regional the fire and police chiefs’ associations, and other law enforcement agencies like the Virginia Fusion Center. We got representatives from each one of the functional working groups to come together.
The Urban Area Working Group that works through the federal UASI grant guidelines and our priorities based on our homeland security strategic plan. As a working group we discuss what the priorities are, and representatives from those functional groups goes back to their committees, association, or whoever they’re representing, and carry that message back to them. And it’s up to them to bring a message back to the Working Group on what kind of projects or priorities they want to put forward.
Q. What is the greatest challenge of your job?
A. The biggest challenge was just bringing everybody together and getting them to think regionally versus independently or parochially for their functional disciplines. Virginia is a commonwealth, and each city and county is independently run, so trying to “corral all the cats,” as I call it, and bring them together is difficult.
In this last year, just the last six-to-eight months, you could really see the transformation beginning to happen where people were looking more at regionally capabilities than local capabilities. As the process matures they’re seeing the value in regional capability. Not every locality can have a given capability; it may not have the means. But as a region we can have that capability, and the UASI provides us that means to get there.
Q. What has been one of the region’s greatest successes?
A. I’ve only been in this position for a year and a half, but overall probably our greatest thing is just the coming together. As a region this area had already been functioning very, very well and continues to do so. But the UASI helped it just bring it another step closer to functioning as a region. So now, as we’re starting to look forward at future projects, what do we need as a region? I would say that’s probably one of the best things that’s occurred is that we’re starting to focus more now on that question as a region.
We’ve also been working with communications interoperability. That’s been a big part of our program all three years. We have what we call the Hampton Roads Interoperable Communications Advisory Committee, which includes communications representatives from all 16 jurisdictions here in Hampton Roads. And basically they are the driving force for all communications interoperability processes, which they get the grant funding and they go forward, and they look at how we can expand our interoperability. And they’ve done that through narrow-banding, moving jurisdictions into the 800 MHz band, and they’ve put in a lot of infrastructure to ensure that we have that, as well as they put together some radio caches for disasters. And that’s been a huge part of what’s been going on.
Q. Is fiscal sustainability a challenge in the economic crisis? If so, how has your region adjusted?
A. We’re coming up on our third year for the first grant cycle that we received, and of course some of the things that we applied for back three years ago, people had the understanding that as long as it was built with UASI funding they would be able to sustain it with UASI funds. But late last year DHS’s Grants Program Directorate indicated that once a period of performance for a grant cycle is over, you can no longer use DHS funds to sustain it. So we’re starting to wrestle with that now because in an economic downturn the localities don’t have the money to pitch in and keep these things going. Thankfully we’re so young as a UASI region that we don’t have a lot to sustain, but it’s changing our way of thinking and our way of planning for future grants.
Q. How would you characterize your region’s relationship with its federal partners?
A. Other than the notices and the data calls and requests that we get from them, we don’t have a direct relationship per se because we go through our state administrative agency which is the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM). So we don’t directly communicate with DHS without going through the state first because we want to keep them in the loop as well. They’re a big partner in what we do.
Q. Does the region engage the private sector in the homeland security mission? If so, how?
A. We really haven’t engaged with the private sector as far as the UASI role goes, that’s something that we’re just now starting to look at. We’re getting ready to change that as we stand up a critical infrastructure program in Hampton Roads, and once we get that started, and we’re hoping to do that in the next couple months, then we know we’re going to be engaging our private sector partners a lot more.
Q. Have any exercises or experiences provided the region any valuable lessons-learned?
A. All of our exercised are coordinated with VDEM, and we do learn some valuable lessons, but we’re just beginning to implement some of the capabilities that we put in with our first years’ grant money, and in some of these exercises we learn where some of our gaps are. We’ve been pretty lucky. We haven’t had any real-world incidents to assess what we’ve put in place so far and whether its made any difference or not. We’re just now embarking on a capabilities assessment here in the region to kind of assess where we are and help guide us in the future. We’ve hired a contractor to come in and do capabilities assessment to help us understand where we are as far as our capabilities. We have a good idea, but what we’re asking him to validate it and help us with our future planning.
Q. What are your office’s goals going forward?
A. Well the critical infrastructure protection program and the capabilities assessment are the big things. We’ve been planning for special needs populations, and then of course the big one that we’re just getting ready to get off the ground is establishment of an incident management team. So we’re developing an incident management team here in Hampton Roads, and that’s something the fire chiefs in Hampton Roads have put forward as an initiative and have funded.