Security Management interviews MaryAnn Tierney, deputy managing director for emergency management in the city of Philadelphia.
MaryAnn Tierney is deputy managing director for emergency management in the City of Philadelphia. Since joining the office in November 2006, Mrs. Tierney has overseen a transformation of the city’s emergency preparedness program, focusing on developing operational emergency plans, conducting training and exercises for first responders, building partnerships with the private sector and community organizations, and providing the public many avenues to learn about how to prepare for and stay informed during an emergency. Previously, Tierney spent over seven years with the New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM), reaching the position of Assistant Commissioner for Planning and Preparedness. During her time with OEM, she oversaw a complete revision of the city’s Coastal Storm Plan including redesign of the evacuation and shelter systems and development of a system for evacuating and sheltering individuals with special medical needs, and pet sheltering. Tierney was responsible for coordinating the debris operation at the World Trade Center and the Fresh Kills Landfill after 9-11 and for the city’s application for federal funding to reimburse costs associated with the response and recovery, which totaled over $4.75 billion.
Tierney has extensive experience coordinating large, complex emergency response operations in the field and at Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs). She has managed over 60 EOC activations in New York and Philadelphia and regularly responds to large emergencies to coordinate on-scene response activities. She is a principal member of the National Fire Protection Association’s Technical Committee on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs and has served as an adjunct professor teaching graduate-level courses on emergency preparedness. Tierney holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from American University in Washington, D.C., and a Master’s degree in public administration from New York University. She was recently admitted to the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s Executive Leaders Program.
Q. What are the responsibilities of your office?
A. We’re the city’s emergency management office. so we handle the planning, training, exercises, public education, and outreach in terms of how to get the public prepared for an emergency, and we do response coordination for larger emergencies. We work directly mostly with the city Police and Fire departments. We do a lot of work with the private sector, especially some of the larger critical infrastructure partners like our Sunoco refinery a lot of the chemical manufacturing. We have a very large sports complex district, we do a lot of work with the big teams and the venue operators. We do a lot of work with the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority in terms of evacuation planning and critical infrastructure protection, and so I would say that it spans the whole gamut from local government agencies to state and federal ones.
Q. What assets and threats make your region unique?
A. Flooding is our primary natural hazard. Actually Pennsylvania is the moist flood-prone state in the nation, and Philadelphia is fairly flood-prone. In terms of more technological hazards, we have a very large manufacturing base. A lot of people don’t realize that, but right in the middle of the country’s sixth largest cities is one of the nation’s largest oil refineries, and there’s a lot of chemical manufacturing as well. And so there are always the concerns associated with having a large manufacturing, refining, and chemical industry in terms of potential releases or explosions, things like that.
Q. How does your professional background influence your work?
A. I started here in 2006, and before that I was with the New York City Office of Emergency Management. I was there from 1999 until a week before I came here, so about seven years. And working in New York obviously there’s a lot of things that happen in New York, it’s a very big city so things are always very complicated, and all of the lessons and the project that I worked on in New York have really helped here in Philadelphia to inform the direction of the office and the kinds of things that we do, because I have a whole experience base of things that we did in New York. Most of the things that we’re doing here are things that I was a part of in New York, so it really puts this office in a good position to gain from that experience.
Q. What did you take away from 9-11?
A. My biggest takeaway from 9-11 was that it’s important to have a system in place where people can share information, where they want to share information, Not just intelligence information but just during a response, it’s important that people communicate. And a lot of people talk about interoperable communication and they say that radios are the solution to that. And radios are just a technology that helps in communications, but it’s important that people have the systems and the relationships in place to talk to each other, that there’s a desire to talk to each other and that there’s processes for that to happen in an organized way during an emergency. Because if you don’t have the communications piece, you may have the best plans in the world but they’re going to fail because people are not talking to each other.
Q. What was your experience that day?
A. I was working for the Office of Emergency Management then and obviously our EOC was located in 7 World Trade Center, which made it difficult because we had to evacuate and went to a series of different EOCs. And my job in the response was that I was a recovery person, so I did debris management and damage assessment and a lot of the infrastructure reconstruction. And I handled the federal reimbursement for the city, so that was kind of my role on 9-11.
Q. How does your region administer its federal Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant funding?
A. The five counties in southeastern Pennsylvania make up our administrative Task Force in terms of the UASI funding, and we primarily fund projects that are regional in nature. We have a paid, full-time executive director and a professional staff for UASI funding . And then the executive board is chaired by the emergency manager from Chester County, and I’m the vice chair. Some of our highest priorities are interoperable communications and hospitals. We do a lot of work with the hospitals. We have 10 work groups that cross all of the disciplines that are involved in emergency preparedness as a part of the Task Force, they develop project proposals, and then the executive board, which consists of the five counties’ emergency managers, makes decisions on what projects will be funded by which work groups.
Actually our Task Force has a Critical Infrastructure Work Group and a Private Sector Outreach Coordination Work Group. So we try to integrate the private sector and critical infrastructure into the projects that we want to fund with UASI dollars. And we’ve done some critical infrastructure projects with the region’s primary energy provider which is PECO, we’ve done projects with the Philadelphia Gas Works, which is a gas provider for the city, and then we’ve done some critical infrastructure projects with the Philadelphia Art Museum, since that’s a very sensitive location for us.
Q. How does the region assess gaps and risks?
A. We do a couple things. We have 10 work groups that have a lot of projects that people obviously would want to have funded, and we have a limited amount of money that would never really equal the funding level that would be required for all the projects. So each year the executive board publishes a list of project priorities—areas that we’re interested in seeing projects be developed around. Like I said, interoperable communications continues to be one of our highest priorities. We’ve also identified hospital surge as a priority. Critical infrastructure protection is a priority for us, and so then the work groups develop projects based on those priorities, and we try to match how much we fund projects based on the priorities that we’ve established. So we try to be consistent between what we say our priorities are and what we actually put dollars behind.
Q. What is one of the region’s greatest successes in the homeland security mission?
A. I’ve only been here about three years, and what I think is one of the greatest successes for the region is the level of collaboration that occurs not just in the city of Philadelphia, but in the entire 5-county area, and even beyond that we have a kind of a 12-county, four-state (Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey) work group, and then also the connections to the private sector. It’s very interconnected and it’s very collaborative. And so folks are generally walking in the same direction and have kind of the same philosophy on how things should be done, and that really helps make it easier to accomplish goals when you set out to accomplish them.
Q. What issues are addressed on the multi-state level?
A. Interoperable communications is the primary project that you would bring all four states and 12 counties into. And so one of the projects that the region has been working on is a microwave network called SECOMNET. And it’s a way to connect all of the public safety dispatch centers in the 12-county, four-state area together, so that you can have console-to-console patching as well as vehicle-to-vehicle patching. It’s almost fully implemented. And since the base part is almost complete, and we’re kind of in the testing phase, we’ve used it in drills, they’ve had specific drills testing different components of it, and there are different solutions that are built onto it.
One of the things that we’re working on right now is bringing in university police departments. In Philadelphia the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University have sworn law enforcement agencies, and so we’re treating them like another governmental entity and we’re connecting this larger microwave network to their radio dispatch systems.
Q. What is the region’s greatest challenge?
A. I think there are a couple of challenges. I think the first one is around maintaining people’s focus on preparedness across the region and even within the city. As you get further away from large disasters people become more complacent. The public and people in government become more complacent. And then as other priorities like the economic crisis come to the forefront, maintaining peoples’ focus on the concept of preparedness and on things in their activities to be prepared can become more difficult. So that’s an ongoing challenge not just in our region but across the country.
The other challenge for us which is not atypical of regions or cities is just trying to identify what should be funded in a particular year. I’ll give you an example. This past year we received $18.4 million from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but we had over $44 million in potential projects. So there’s a big gap there, and for us, it’s kind of hard to figure out where we’re going to get the most regional benefit, the most bang for our buck, in terms of the projects that are funded.
Q. Is fiscal sustainability a challenge? If so, how has the region addressed it?
A. It is. Public safety departments are typically immune from budget cuts. And I think what you’re seeing now in our region and across the country is that public safety is generally the government’s largest expense, especially at the local level. There’s a lot of overtime, it’s a lot of personnel costs. And so once you’ve cut as much as you can cut from other services and you still have a budget deficit, public safety is on the table in terms of a possible area where budget cuts can occur. That really doesn’t happen very often, and I think that speaks to kind of this economic crisis for local governments, because you can read articles across the country about police departments laying off people, fire departments laying off people and cutting back services. And traditionally it’s kind of a hands-off policy with public safety and the budget. And that’s one thing that I’ve seen.
The second thing is that as these other departments have to make cuts, the government’s larger capacity to respond to emergencies becomes diminished. So for example, you rely for that initial response on fire and police. But then there’s a whole host of services that are offered to victims of disasters, whether it’s from a government agency that provides, let’s say, social services or even a nonprofit organization that’s seen it’s donations go down. They have diminished capacity and so the overall ability to respond to a disaster becomes diminished through these budget cuts.
Q. How would you characterize your office’s relationship with its federal partners?
A. We do a lot of work with the federal government, with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and with federal law enforcement. Philadelphia is the regional hub for a lot of federal agencies, like FEMA’s Region III headquarters is located in Philadelphia, the FBI and the Secret Service both have fairly large field offices in Philadelphia, and we do regular work with them and that helps us and I think helps them as a way to access non-law enforcement services inside of city government.
Lots of times law enforcement agencies only talk to other law enforcement agencies, but sometimes their needs go beyond that, and what we try to do is assist them with that. An example is we recently had a National Governors Association conference here in Philadelphia last year, and one of the things that we provided to law enforcement at all levels for the city and the state and federal law enforcement was a map book of all the critical sites that they were interested in, with evacuation routes overlayed on that. So we try to find places where, not to take the role of law enforcement because it’s obviously not our job, but we try to add value to the law enforcement mission.
Q. What would you change if you could?
A. I think DHS has a long way to go in terms of grants management. The guidance changes very often. That can be really difficult to manage at the local level because the rules you operate under for one year can be different the following year, and you don’t know until they issue the guidance. And for projects that are kind of being funded over a multi-year period, that can be really difficult. In one year something might be eligible, in another year it might not be.
One of the biggest issues I think for us not just regionally but nationally is this whole policy around equipment maintenance and sustainment. Right now you can buy new equipment with DHS grant money, but you can’t pay for the maintenance or equipment sustainment bought with grant money in the out years with later grant funding. So let’s say you get something with federal fiscal year 2007 grant funding. The grants revolve every three years—for that year and then until the grant expires, you can maintain the equipment, purchase upgrades, things like that. After the grant period expires, that equipment is yours to deal with. And that’s a real problem for local governments, especially now, because you’re probably six or seven years now into all of these federal grants and you have a lot of equipment with a “shelf life” that’s kind of coming up. And its’ coming up at the worst possible time when local governments can’t bear the burden of these expenses.
What I think is kind of irrational about this policy is that you could throw all of that stuff away and buy all new equipment and end up spending more money than you really need to. You buy a piece of equipment for $100,000, it could cost you $20,000 to maintain it, and then you would save $80,000 in grant funding that you could then direct to something like training and exercises. But instead you have to make a decision: am I going to just let the equipment just kind of rot in the shelf, or just go but a new piece of equipment for $100,000. I think that when the policymakers at the federal level were envisioning this concept of maintenance and sustainment, they weren’t thinking about encouraging people to throw away decent equipment. So I think that at the federal level that really needs to be looked at. There’s a piece of legislating making its way through the house right now to kind of correct that, what I think is a misinterpretation of the existing legislation.
Q. How exactly does your office engage its private sector partners?
A. One of the projects that we’ve been working on for the last couple years is around evacuation—how do we move people in the city if there’s an evacuation, and where do we stage large amounts of people who may exit office buildings and then need to access transportation. And one of the things that we developed in Center City, which is kind of our central business district, is a rallying point plan for evacuees. We worked with building owners and managers who worked with universities to develop rallying points. We also did a very similar plan with the sports complex working with police and fire and then the sports complex owner-operators to develop a plan for how we would evacuate the sports complex in an emergency scenario. And our entire evacuation plan was kind of built with private sector input as we were developing the plans, which I think is kind of different than what a lot of organizations do. Usually government will write a plan, and then they’ll bring it to the private sector and say, “Here’s our plan, please comment on it.” And what we did was we wrote a plan with the private sector so that it wasn’t a completed product that they were kind of commenting on, they had direct input into the development of the initial product. I think that makes it a better product.
What we did in Center City was create a plan so that office buildings could empty and there would be space for everyone to rally all at once. So let’s say that all of the office, all of the high-rise office buildings in Center City needed to be evacuated. Rather than have everybody in one location, or all of these buildings making individual decisions about where to send people but not coordinating those choices, we centralized that and we assigned buildings rallying points so that we could ensure that there would be space for everybody that was evacuating at a rallying point, so that we didn’t have overcrowding or unsafe conditions at a particular rallying point.
Q. Have any recent responses or exercises generated valuable lessons learned?
A. The city has been doing a lot of exercises. We’ve been doing a series of tabletop workshops and functional exercises around or various plans, focusing primarily on evacuation and sheltering in mass casualty incidents. And we’ve done a very extensive series of exercises just on mass casualty response. And that’s led to a lot of changes in how—when we’re working with the fire department—how they respond to mass casualty incidents, implementing additional training, trying to identify additional resources, and a lot of lessons learned. Frankly I think in every exercise if you haven’t learned something valuable that’s changed how you do your job, then the exercise probably was not as strenuous as it should have been. The whole point of our exercises is to identify weak points so we can go back and make corrections.
Q. What are your office’s goals going forward?
A. Next year our goals are around evacuation at least for the city to further develop the evacuation plan, further develop our shelter plan, continue the development of our mass casualty plan, and we have like a 5-year strategic plan. We have a lot of plans that we’ll be working on next year, but really focusing on developing more operational plans. We have a fairly comprehensive public education plan. And then in terms of training and exercises we have a 2-year training and exercise schedule that actually goes into 2011, and that’s kind of already set up, but we have a lot of exercises and training activities planned for next year.
One of the things we’re building for the city is an incident management team, so we have a lot of people who use ICS (Incident Command System) 300 and 400, but what we want to do now is build a team of people that can serve as kind of the incident management team for the city to support the first responders and the nontraditional first responders.