Security Management interviews Robert Nations, Jr., director of the Shelby County, Tennessee Office of Preparedness.
Robert “Bob” Nations, Jr. is director of the Shelby County, Tennessee Office of Preparedness, which coordinates the homeland security and emergency management missions for the greater Memphis-Shelby County region under the federal Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant program. Nations is a career law enforcement officer and police administrator, beginning his career in 1972. Prior to joining Shelby County, he served as director of homeland security for the state of Mississippi, and served as the state’s chief of operations for homeland security during the response to Hurricane Katrina. Nations serves on the Homeland Security Advisory Board at Daniel Webster College in Nashua, New Hampshire, and works in project management with the University of Mississippi’s Legal Studies Department. Bob is co-author of the text Introduction to Homeland Security and is a frequent speaker at regional and national conferences.
What are the responsibilities of your office?
Our office includes Shelby County Homeland Security and the Memphis/Shelby County Emergency Management Agency. We’re all under the same umbrella. Our UASI region is made up of six counties in three states: four counties in Tennessee, those being Shelby, Tipton, Fayette, and Lauderdale counties. In Mississippi we have DeSoto County and then in Arkansas we have Crittenden County across the Mississippi River to the West. And because we extend into Arkansas, we are involved with the FEMA Region IV here and in Mississippi, and Region VI, which includes Arkansas.
What assets and threats make your region unique?
Within Shelby County we have very large response agencies—large law enforcement agencies, fire services, and EMS—and Memphis/Shelby County is the core of the UASI, and those resources are critical as we reach out to our rural partners and smaller partners. We have a high level of risk here, and of course that’s stated in relative terms, but we have the New Madrid Fault line—obviously that’s always a consideration in our planning—and it’s also a very real consideration in terms of equipment and our training. We’re also very prone to tornadoes in this region. We have the river traffic, we have a large chemical sector here with companies such as DuPont; and we have other global companies such as FedEx and International Paper. So within our industrial base, we a lot of risk factors to consider, particularly if we look at man-caused or criminal acts, and the ability to weaponize assets that are already on the ground.
How does the region plan and prioritize investment of funding?
We have a well-drilled business model that we put into effect in the spring of 2007. We follow the guidance for the UASI that’s issued by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and it’s worked very well. We’ve had some struggles, some growing pains in the early years, but all of that has borne fruit and we have a very vibrant, a very strong governance structure.
Our Urban Area Working Group is the fundamental authority for what we do in the UASI and allocating UASI funds, and it’s a very strong group. The way the governance works is that the Urban Area Working Group, which is made up of representatives from the agencies across the six-county region, meets on a monthly basis and our office simply attempts to fulfill what the Urban Area Working Group votes on. We do offer administrative guidance and compliance structures, but we try to adhere to the directions they want to go. And then once a year, usually in October, we have an annual business meeting in which we vote on the allocation of funds and what projects we are going to undertake. Then, jurisdictions that want to complete an investment justification or project paper will send that into us and then we evaluate whether it would positively affect and strengthen the UASI: Does it follow the guidance and does it fall under the umbrella of approved projects? Then we move forward through Shelby County government with our necessary resolutions and the legislative process.
What is the greatest challenge in your office’s mission?
The educational process. The business community responds very well and the response agencies are very much involved. Yet ongoing education with our senior elected officials is probably one of our biggest challenges. We have to ensure that they understand what each particular emergency function is required to do, how it’s required to do it, and what the end results are, so that if all of that works together we can create a very effective product.
What has been the region’s greatest success?
I think we’ve had a lot of successes here. Our first responders—those agencies are extremely competent. Recently we’ve gone through a tornado with fatalities, we’ve gone through very severe flooding in which millions upon millions of dollars worth of property was lost, and one fatality. So throughout the UASI, as we blend and integrate homeland security and emergency management, we have these incidents that occur, and we find great success because of the interaction that takes place on a very frequent, regular basis.
The other thing that we’ve been very successful at is enhancement of emergency communications and communications interoperability in the systems that we’ve been able to build, and also the advances and enhancements of our information collection and sharing. Those are some real success stories for us.
Is fiscal sustainability a challenge? If so, how is your region adapting?
Certainly the economy has had an impact. In terms of our homeland security program we have remained at a fairly constant funding level. The place that hurts the most is on the local revenue side, where budgets are under very, very tight scrutiny.
How would you characterize your office’s relationship with its federal partners? What, if anything, would you change about that relationship?
All in all we have a good relationship, but one has to understand how various levels of government perceive these relationships. The local level is where it all happens and where it all originates, and those jurisdictions can easily be buried in bureaucracy between the federal and state levels. If the federal agencies have a perception that their partner is the state, then you can have a huge breakdown in what is achievable at a local level of government. And it goes beyond personal relationships. You can have good “people” relationships but if the ideology and the administrative protocols cause a breakdown, then there’s a breakdown. And that’s a huge challenge. We have a good working relationship with each level. All of that is dependent on federal and state officials’ perceptions of their roles in partnering with local government. And that oftentimes becomes a huge frustration if you don’t have a supportive state government or if you have a disconnect with your federal partners.
How does your region coordinate its public-private partnerships?
In our UASI we are very, very aggressive with public-private partnerships. We just finished last week a workshop—a summit—with 100 private business people and that was sponsored by Verizon Communications so that we could begin working with small- to medium-size businesses in contingency planning and then risk management principles. And so that was a very successful workshop for us. We have a longstanding partnership with the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce on continuity of operations and bringing that group of businesspeople together to talk about preparedness. So we’re forging very strong partnerships. The Assisi Foundation of Memphis has been very, very supportive at facilitating both the nonprofit and the business community into a partnership, and so we feel really good about the direction we’re headed. We’re not where we want to be yet, but we have invested a lot of our funding into building that partnership and to building joint contingency plans between public and private entities.
Have any recent responses or exercises generated valuable lessons-learned?
Unfortunately since February of 2008 we’ve had many real missions that called for multi-jurisdictional, multi-discipline response, and so although we have had drills and tabletops to test our communications capability, our interoperability capabilities, the real-world incidents have caused us to rehearse so much of our system that it’s almost a benign thing to talk about exercises versus our real-world incidents at this point.
But we do participate in the national exercises and we do, throughout the year participate in the seismic drills exercises and conferences, workshops, etc. And on the local basis we have a partnership with the Medical Education & Research Institute, or MERI, which is based in Memphis and does extensive exercises, particularly as it relates to casualties and fatalities. We have a strong and growing relationship with them for simulation training and do those on a frequent basis.
Every one of our incident responses gives us lessons-learned. I’ve been in public safety through law enforcement for now going on 39 years. I don’t think there’s an incident that you respond to that you don’t walk away with lessons learned. You can evaluate and assess what you did well, and we do many things well, but we also learn from each incident, the things that we can enhance and ways we can improve. So each one of those incidents, the tornado that caused fatalities, the flooding that damaged so much property, we have valuable lessons learned from communications to basic response. We are constantly in motion at enhancing those.
What are your offices primary goals going forward?
Our major goal in everything we do is to prevent what we can prevent. To accomplish that we’ll continue to enhance our interoperable communications and our information-sharing capability, so that through data collection and our intel work we can prevent man-caused incidents. The second goal is to do all we can to respond to incidents we can’t prevent. For that we’ve got to prepare communities to survive, so we have very aggressive programs for our citizens for them to develop basic survival skills, to not only help themselves but to help their neighbors, their churches, and their community.
Prevention is our major thrust, and that may sound simplistic, but so much is involved in prevention, we believe that if we have a solid prevention, comprehensive program, then our response and recovery will be much more effective.
How does your professional background inform your current work?
I’m a career law enforcement officer and over the span of 31 years you just build on your experiences. I’ve also been involved in teaching at universities and have been author and co-author of three books, the latest one being a textbook on homeland security, and so I think that our personal and professional experiences play into our ability to make decisions and, after a while I think that it becomes part of our own nature and makeup—the ability to make quick assessments and to just simply be competent in your field of practice.