Security Management interviews Barb Graff, director of Seattle Office of Emergency Management.
Barb Graff has served as director of Seattle Office of Emergency Management since June of 2005. Her responsibilities include managing the multihazard interdepartmental emergency management program for the city and coordinating with other emergency response agencies and community groups. The program encompasses all phases of integrated emergency management including preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery. She has managed the response to a number of presidentially declared disasters and has a depth of experience with full-scale and functional exercises. Prior to joining the City of Seattle, Graff worked for the City of Bellevue for 21 years; seven in the city manager’s office and 14 as emergency preparedness manager. In that capacity she led Bellevue’s emergency management program through a national pilot of the Emergency Management Accreditation Program (EMAP) process. She serves on the (EMAP) Commission, chairs the EMAP Review Committee, and also sits on the King County Advisory Committee on Emergency Management and the Regional Homeland Security Council. A member of the Washington State Emergency Management Association and the International Association of Emergency Managers, Graff co-chairs the Washington Information Network 2-1-1 information referral system’s Board of Directors. A native of the Puget Sound region, she holds a Bachelor of Science degree in sociology from the University of Washington. In 1992, Graff received the “Educator of the Year" award from the Washington State Public Educators Association and in 2000 she received a “Best of Bellevue” award from the Advance Bellevue community-wide leadership group for her exemplary work in community preparedness.
What are the responsibilities of your office?
The Seattle Office of Emergency Management is organizationally housed within the Seattle Police Department. I, as the director, am a direct report to the police chief, but I also meet on a regular monthly basis directly with the mayor as well as the council president. Although the office is housed within the Police Department we are responsible for leading the citywide program of emergency preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery.
What assets and threats make your region unique?
I guess the first asset would be the beauty of the part of the country we live in. We like to say that we live in the “right” Washington. You’re no more than 45 minutes away from downhill skiing, deep-sea fishing, kayaking, hiking. There are a lot of people who gravitate to the Northwest because of the natural environment, and there’s a lot of people like me who grow up here and never go away.
Those same assets—the beauty of the region—are complemented by some threats. We are in close proximity to the Canadian border, so we have international affairs to deal with. We live surrounded by water. We have a very, very healthy port here, and because we’ve got so much water on one side of Seattle and a mountain range on the other, we don’t have a particularly redundant transportation system.
Is the proximity of Mount Rainier a concern? What unique measures does your region take to prepare for the risks it poses?
Seattle, much like many communities across the nation has done a formal assessment called a hazard identification and vulnerability analysis, and in our particular analysis of what could happen in our area, we’ve come up with 18 different natural and manmade hazards that we prepare for. In Seattle itself, the things that top that list—and we use a formula to figure out the potential impacts of various threats—but what tops our list in Seattle tends to be earthquakes, not so much because of their frequency but because of their complexity and impact, followed by winter storms, because of their frequency, and then close to that are acts of terrorism based on the risk and vulnerability, as well as on past actions.
Volcanic hazards are on that hazard identification and vulnerability list, but quite frankly for the city of Seattle, they’re at the bottom. Now if you talked to my colleague to the south from the Pierce County Emergency Agency—we’re in King County——you’ll find volcanic hazards up toward the top, because they’re so close to Mount Rainier and frankly Mount St. Helens and others. So for them an outdoor warning system is appropriate to try to give people as much notice as possible. We did in Washington State deal with one of the world’s largest volcanic eruptions in 1980 with Mount St. Helens. Given the prevailing jet stream—the wind patterns—it blew a tremendous amount of ash eastward. So we in Seattle weren’t impacted, although we could see how people were impacted to our south.
Frankly the thing highest on our hazard list is earthquakes because they tend to come with no warning. The way I like to put it is that I’m warning everyone that “today” there’s going to be one; I just can’t tell you the day. So Pierce County to our south does have warning systems for volcanic hazards. What we do here in Seattle is we practice for two things: One, if for any reason the prevailing winds were abnormal the day that Mount Rainier were to blow, we do practice in our strategic work groups and our disaster management committees for how we would deal with short notice of ash fall heading our direction. And of course since we have statewide practice with that we’ve had good lessons to learn. Mostly though, we practice for how we would help our neighbors out. So if Pierce County needed to evacuate and we had a bunch of their population into our areas how could we be of assistance to them.
How does the Seattle region coordinate preparedness, planning, and grant allocation?
For general emergency preparedness Washington is a home-rule state, which means that local communities are expected to develop their own emergency plans, or band together through mutual aid or interlocal agreements to do so jointly. Once those local plans are in place, local communities are supported by the counties. They work in partnership with the public, and then all of that effort is then supported by the state, and then eventually supported by federal assets.
As far as the federal Urban Area Security Initiative grant program, our region is made up of three counties: Snohomish, King, and Pierce counties, as well as the two major cities in those counties, which are Seattle and Bellevue. That three-county, two-city arrangement accounts for practically 60 percent of Washington’s population. The way it’s governed is through an interdisciplinary Urban Area Working Group, and they’re the folks tasked with doing capability assessments, threat analysis, and project development, and all of their work is governed by a five-member urban area core team composed of a high-ranking individual from each of the three counties and the two cities.
Does your office engage private-sector partners? If so, how?
We’ve got some great examples and we’re pretty proud of them actually. There’s an organization called the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER), which represents five states, plus three Canadian provinces and two Canadian territories. It’s an organization formed to help build awareness and planning for critical infrastructure interdependencies. And they do that through a series of forums and workshops and annual exercises. And these are tremendously successful. They ordinarily draw 700 participants in those forums and workshops and exercises, and work through interdependency issues.
I remember back in 1999 when we were all preparing for the Y2K change, and we were all trying to figure out what was going to happen, and a lot of emergency management leaders went to telecommunications providers and said, “You’re vital to us. We need you to stay up. How can you guarantee us you can.” And they said, “Oh, don’t worry, we’ve got that solved. As long as you can guarantee that there’s power, telecommunications is there for you.” Well, we went to the power industry and they said, “Oh, don’t worry, as long as we’ve got telecommunications, we’re there for you.” So it’s those kinds of issues that PNWER exposes and plans for and deals with.
Secondly, as far as working with the private sector, there is a critical infrastructure group that is facilitated as a part of our King County-wide—Seattle’s just one member of that—but King County-wide Emergency Advisory Committee, which also serves as our Homeland Security Council in the region.
Third, there is an organization that’s relatively young called the WashingtonFIRST coalition, which is a federally-backed initiative, to get the financial institutions and risk management groups in large metropolitan areas to form a more collaborative working relationship, and ours is a very, very healthy one. We built it on the success of similar programs in both Chicago and San Francisco.
Then finally we just have ongoing relationships in our training, our planning, and our exercises with our local chambers of commerce, the Building Owners and Managers Association and other business groups.
What has made the Seattle region such a leader in public-private partnerships?
I’d like to think that it was word-of-mouth based on our actions. It’s one thing to try and market yourself, but actions are much better marketing than any kind of campaign. And a lot of credit for our regional collaboration really goes to a lot of western Washington communities, not just Seattle. I can give some examples of how we’ve done things in a really regional nature. We’ve developed something called the Regional Disaster Plan for public and private organizations in King County. There are 150 signatories to a plan that includes an omnibus and financial agreement—in other words 150 attorneys for various agencies all signed off on this mutual aid pact about how we would coordinate and how we would share each other’s resources.
In the late 1990s James Lee Witt, when he was Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator, tried to put a stronger emphasis on mitigation. So he chose Seattle as one of the communities to put seed money into specifically for mitigation under Project Impact, which wound up giving us the opportunity to create a home retrofit program, made for easy over-the-counter building permits, instructions for how to retrofit your home, etc., and those plans were in turn shared with all neighboring jurisdictions that were interested in getting involved.
Then shortly after Hurricane Katrina, the Department of Homeland Security sent assessors to all 175 major urban areas around the country to say, “Well, how would you have handled that scope of a disaster?” And not surprisingly, many urban areas around the country had some specific areas that could use some improvement, like mass care and resource management. That was the genesis of the Regional Catastrophic Planning Grant program, and Seattle was chosen as one of 10, or I should say the Seattle area—the Puget Sound Region—was chosen as one of 10 areas throughout the country, I think based on that track record of project impact and the Regional Disaster Plan and good cooperative working relationships to be given several million dollars to bring our plans up to a catastrophic level. Not just the typical kind of Nisqually Earthquake-level that we had before.
And I guess finally who I have to give credit to is just our local citizenry. We’ve got a lot of very well educated and extremely involved and civic-minded people who live here.
What are some of your region’s most valuable lessons-learned in forging partnerships?
Well I can’t remember who coined it first but I live by “United we stand, divided we fall.” Most of the disasters for which we plan, even if they’re not of the catastrophic Katrina or Gulf Coast kind of level, they generally don’t stop at our own borders, and so what we do to mitigate and to plan for and prepare and respond and recover has to be done in a regional nature. Additionally, and I know that Congress is looking at this right now, and that’s the cost efficiency of shared resources. It’s a travesty that we had to wait so long to demand interoperability with federally grant-funded equipment, but it just makes good sense. And then finally, plans in my view make for good intentions. It’s a statement of a good intention. But planning is what makes for success. You’ve created the relationship. People are always going to be in charge of response and recovering. And simply reading a plan doesn’t give you that appreciation of what your neighbor’s capabilities or weaknesses are, and how you can maximize the use of regional resources.
What is the greatest challenge of your office’s mission?
I think that’s three-fold. One is the scope of the threats themselves and the risks and the hazards, especially because they tend to evolve. Unlike earthquakes, which we’ve learned a lot more about—the complexity and science of earthquakes—in the last 10 to 20 years, the risks associated with acts of terrorism are constantly evolving, and so your best plans from the last bad thing that happened won’t have as much to do with the next bad thing that’s going to happen. So the changing nature of threats I think is a huge one.
For those of us who have been in the business for a long time, another challenge is the attrition of players, the Baby Boom has a bunch of people retiring. We’ve got to replace all those people with good, competent people who need to have seasoning and experience—people who understand the threats and the risks. There’s just a constant revolving door of people that you need to catch up with.
And then third, we always fight the battle of enough resources to accomplish our basic mission, let alone anything new on the plate.
What would you characterize as your region’s greatest success in emergency management?
I’m going to give you a couple but I’ll put them in order. I am so proud of the development of that Regional Disaster Plan. There was no congressional mandate. There was no statewide mandate. It was just a bunch of us at the local level who said that we need to act like regional partners in preparedness and response and recovery. So I’m extremely proud of the ability to put together a regional plan that involved both public and private agencies. Secondly I would point to the collaboration that we’re currently enjoying on the projects associated with our federal Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Grant – we’ve got a 21-member regional catastrophic planning team that oversees eight separate, distinct unique projects.
And from the moment that we constituted that group, every vote that we’ve taken on membership, on charter, on charter amendments, on projects, has been a unanimous vote. And that team has been a public-private partnership. It represents many different disciplines; we have tribal representatives; I’m very proud of that. Then finally I’m a big mitigation fan, so I want to give credit to people who I inherited this program from regarding Project Impact, the Home Retrofit Program, they used some of their grant money to do non-structural hazard mitigation throughout the public schools, and they developed much, much better hazard mapping, on which we’ve been able to do much better planning based on that good information.
What is an example of a mitigation measure in a household or a public school?
Non-structural mitigation—especially in our schools—we have a bunch of older schools that used to have flush tanks overhead that were not secured, so that in an earthquake those could have fallen an certainly would have killed if not severely injured students.
How would you characterize your office’s relationship with its federal partners? What would you change, if anything?
We have enjoyed excellent relationships with our colleagues at FEMA Region X, with the Coast Guard, other members of the military, and that goes to the point I made earlier about how plans are good intentions but planning makes for the relationships where you get to know one another’s’ resources. So I would characterize our office’s relationship with our federal partners as absolutely excellent. We’ve had many years of completely open dialogue and training, and we practice together. Now even more so because of the Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Grant.
What are your office’s primary goals going forward?
Continuation as far as recovery planning goes. We have a basic Emergency Support Function-14 in our plan that puts a structure in place to take us from the response phase of an incident through short- and long-term recovery. But there’s a lot more work that we need to put into post-disaster recovery planning, from housing and job reconstitution, and infrastructure rebuilding, that’s going to be a major initiative for us. Also, the regional catastrophic grant will go away in a few years. When it does, by the time it does, we need to have institutionalized an ongoing commitment to that kind of regional partnership.
So I think we’ve got the willing players at the table, but the planning grant has enabled us to actually produce something, so we need not to slide backward when that goes away. Another major thing is determining how we’ll make better use of social media. For instance many of our departments already blog or share information over Twitter and Facebook and all that sort of thing, but we really aren’t conversational with the community at this point yet. So I think government in general—and we’re included in that—needs to figure out how we’re going to make the best possible use of the ability to be in conversation with your community. I guess another initiative that we fit into at a national level is capabilities assessment. Congress is interested in learning how have we bought down risk and built up capability with all the homeland security grants. But those grants only account for 2 or 3 percent of what cumulatively local and state governments put into capabilities. We need to do a better job at showing how we have assessed our capabilities and measured the results of those investments.