Security Management interviews Alice D. Johnson, executive director of Utah's Salt Lake Urban Area.
Alicia D. Johnson is executive director of the Salt Lake Urban Area, where she oversees the region’s administration of U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant program. She has held the position for the past two years, managing annual grant funds worth more than $7 million, including investment justifications and projects focused on emergency management, regional training, information sharing, external affairs, and interoperable communications. Previously, she served as an emergency management specialist in public information for Salt Lake County Emergency Management’s Unified Fire Authority, as public information officer for the Pueblo County (Colorado) Department of Emergency Management, and as a public relations consultant for Jewett Drug, Inc. Johnson earned a Bachelor’s degree in communication and political science from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and a holds a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Colorado.
What are the responsibilities of your office?
As the Salt Lake Urban Area, designated under DHS’s UASI program, we are a federally-funded grant program, so our mission is determined by the grant program itself. We work primarily on regional preparedness and terrorism prevention. Currently our region is greater Salt Lake County, so it’s all of the jurisdictions that fall within the County boundaries. In terms of our office’s responsibilities, we manage the UASI grant funds, and then we also oversee and assist nine subject-matter expert committees on regional projects and program development.
What assets and make your region unique?
One of our major assets and is the world headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints here in Salt Lake City. That’s an asset in terms of its community value and humanitarian work, and also a potential target. Salt Lake County is located on the Wasatch Fault line, so of course earthquakes are a major concern here, and we work to prepare the community for a potential earthquake. Living in the Rocky Mountains we are of course familiar with all kinds of weather threats, in particular snow emergencies and spring-runoff flooding. Those things are all major concerns here.
How does the region manage planning and administration of federal grant funds?
We have a board of trustees that is called the Urban Area Working Group. It oversees the implementation of the UASI funds. The Working Group works directly with the nine subject-matter-expert committees. The committees are tasked with addressing issues including law enforcement and terrorism prevention, community preparedness, external affairs, operations, emergency management, training and exercises, medical operations, critical infrastructure, and communications, which primarily focuses on interoperability. Additionally, we have an advisory group that’s made up of area mayors, sheriffs, and police and fire chiefs that focuses on guidance and on aligning UASI spending with sister grant programs like the broader Homeland Security Grant Program. Our goal is a high return on investment for regional preparedness, and we target our strategies to work with other grant programs and to work with strategies within our partner jurisdictions.
What is the greatest challenge your region confronts in its mission?
I think our biggest challenge as an urban area composed of various jurisdictions and agencies is the ability to respond and communicate as a regional team. The Salt Lake Valley is like any metro area. It has political boundaries, but cities that begin and end without any practical social demarcation, and so citizens work in one city but live in another, they have children who might go to school in yet another city. So the ability to respond in a unified manner—because that’s what our citizens expect of us—is often a challenge.
What do you consider the region’s greatest success?
There are so many successes here. One I’d cite specifically is our development and implementation of a successful regional strategy. Over the last three years since the inception of the UASI program here we’ve been able to develop and implement a strategy regionally, get communities on board, and have them support programs that we’re working on. The 2002 Winter Olympics were a part of that. The games were really a foundational aspect of the importance of working together as a team, and of the importance of establishing that kind of strategy as a regional group.
Is fiscal sustainability a challenge? If so, how is your region coping?
As a federally funded grant program, sustainability is a massive concern. It’s a very real concern for me and for the committees that are managing projects and programs. We continue to look at the long-term sustainability and feasibility of programs. The Urban Area Working Group has determined to fund programs that are sustainable, that either can be absorbed by or funded through additional grant programs, and something that we’re really working toward as a group is leveraging all funding sources appropriately. But it definitely overshadows what we do.
How would you characterize your relationship with the region’s federal partners? What, if anything, would you change?
We have a really great relationship with our federal partners and our grant program managers back in Washington, D.C. They are very easy to work with, very easy when we have questions or comments. So there’s not really anything I would change specifically about our personal relationship with them. They make it easy to do business and to do it well.
Does your office engage the private sector in its mission? If so, how?
Yes, absolutely. We work with the private sector relatively extensively. Here in Utah we have a Private Sector Coordinating Council, and the Salt Lake Urban Area is a members. We encourage the private sector to become involved in any of our nine subject-matter-expert committees that are relevant, and currently we have members of the private sector on those committees. So they’re looking at the impact of the private sector, how to protect assets appropriately, and how to work with them so that we can better reach the public.
How best can private sector stakeholders engage in this process?
There are a couple of ways. One is to contact our office, or to contact their area emergency management office if they’re in a specific community, another option is to go through their Local Emergency Planning Committee to get involved in that particular way, that’s essentially the group that works specifically with chemical hazards. It’s a very specific part of the private sector but a very important one. And finally, the third option is really to work with the Private Sector Coordinating Council at the state level. So there are multiple ways to get involved, and we would accept all of their help.
How is your office exploiting social media?
I am a very strong proponent of social media and of offices getting involved in it, especially in the social media in emergency management movement that’s taking place on Twitter and Facebook as well—all social media in general. We leverage it as an office just in getting information out about types of committee meetings or concerns. Personally I leverage it to assist the committees and in building a nationwide network of people who can answer our questions, and to foster discussions about how our work impacts not only our communities but the rest of the nation and worldwide in general. There are some really great things that are happening in the social media arena that can play into what we do long term.
Is use of social media in emergency management limited to networking and external communications, or can it be used for situational awareness during events?
I don’t think we are “there” completely in terms of using the technology for situational awareness. I think we are moving there, and I think that’s what makes it really exciting. We’re moving forward and we’re continually adjusting after each disaster, not only in the United States but worldwide.
And again, it’s a highly critical tool in external communication. It’s really vital that as government agencies and private sector are listening prior to a crisis—that we know how to communicate with our stakeholders, and we’re doing it effectively every day, so that when something does happen, we’re a natural voice of authority and knowledge. I think that’s really vital in communicating. The public, the people who we are here to protect, are on social networks. And it would be a shame for us not to be involved in those to communicate with the public appropriately. And I think what I mean by communication, to have a conversation with them. It’s two-way. We’re talking and we’re listening at the same time.
What are your office’s primary goals going forward?
Long-term, it’s really important for us to maintain our regional strategy and to work together as a team, as a group of people, to leverage the relationships, the dollars, and the communities that we work with. And I think that’s really where we’re headed in terms of what we do. It’s also really vital in terms of the long-term goals to finish what we start—to look at projects and programs that we have started and to really complete them as opposed to just stopping midway through because we aren’t satisfied with the results. The important thing is to have some stick-to-itiveness. So those I think are the two major goals that we want to concentrate on: the regional strategy and communication and preparedness, and sticking to what we start and finishing that.