An interview with Glenn Cannon, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.
Glenn Cannon is Director of Pennsylvania’s Emergency Management Agency (PEMA). PEMA coordinates state agency response to support county and local governments in the areas of civil defense, disaster preparedness, planning, and response to and recovery from man-made or natural disasters.Cannon previously served as the senior vice president in the Pittsburgh office of Hillard Heintze LLC, Strategic Security Advisors, where he provided consulting related to homeland security and emergency and disaster management and communications. Before that, Cannon served as an assistant administrator in the Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency, where he was in charge of disaster operations and was responsible for the development and execution of interagency plans and procedures in response to presidential disaster and emergency declarations. Cannon has also served as the county manager and chief operating officer of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, and as the executive director of Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, and director of the Department of Public Safety for the city of Pittsburgh. Cannon received his bachelor’s degree in education from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, his master’s degree in public management from Carnegie-Mellon University, and his J.D. from the Duquesne University School of Law.
What are your responsibilities at PEMA?
My job is to coordinate the state’s response to disasters or emergencies, whether they are “notice” or “no-notice” events. We are missionaries of prevention, protection, response, recovery, and mitigation. Pennsylvania has 67 counties, and in each of those counties, we have emergency management staff. Pennsylvania is a commonwealth: we have over 2,600 local governments, and under state law those local governments are also required to have an emergency management agency. So we have lots of planning and training to do for both the local and the county organizations. And we also operate the state’s emergency operations center, so when something does happen, that’s the place we gather and share information about that event and coordinate the response. We are the commonwealth’s consequence manager, and we don’t care what causes a situation.
What are the threats facing Pennsylvania, both natural and man-made?
If you look at 20 years of natural disaster presidential declarations, they’re mostly flooding events and snow emergencies. And along with that, we had a record-breaking year with tornadoes this year. Our floods were severe. You have to go back 39 years to find storms that were as devastating to the commonwealth as we had this year. We had an earthquake in late summer. None of us in this area had experienced that before. It got a lot of folks’ attention.
Of course, on the other side, because of our nuclear reactors, you could have a man-made event that would be significant. We had Three-Mile Island here in Pennsylvania. Folks in the Harrisburg area have great memory about that event, so that’s part of why we do nuclear-plant exercises every other year with our five locations. And, of course, there always the potential unknown, the event that we just don’t know about: the terrorist attack that could occur on one of those nuclear plants or any one of our other critical infrastructure or key resources that we have in the commonwealth.
In your opinion, what threats or vulnerabilities that affect the state are given too little attention?
There’s a trend occurring at the federal level right now that as the dollars lessen, there’s more and more focus being put on terrorist activity than on all hazards. If you look across our country in the last year or two, whether they were tornadoes in Alabama; an ice storm in Tennessee; a tornado in Missouri; or flooding in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and New England; the resources that we have been able to put in place with homeland security dollars that were for all-hazards have allowed outstanding responses to those events. If we lose track of that and focus just on a terrorist event, then we will not be as prepared as we are today.
How does PEMA work with the federal government, specifically DHS and its component FEMA?
FEMA is without a doubt our partner. PEMA and every other state emergency management agency relates to FEMA on a day-to-day basis. All of our grant funding—whether it’s homeland security state grant money or emergency management program grant dollars or special things like the FIRE Act grants that go directly to municipal governments—comes through FEMA. One of our roles here at PEMA is that we are the State Administrative Agent (SAA) for the state on behalf of FEMA. We are the fiduciary of all grant funds that flow into Pennsylvania. We are joined at the hip with FEMA as it relates to emergency response, recovery, mitigation, and preparedness.
What are the most important things PEMA spends federal money on?
The first part comes from what is called the Emergency Management Program Grant (EMPG). State homeland security grants have been cut tremendously, cutting through the skin and the muscle. The bone is the EMPG. That’s the thing that allows us to prepare for consequence management, regardless of what causes the event. So we fought very hard at the state level and with our national organization, the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA), to protect those grant funds. Those are very specific, and that’s the money that we use to fund the county emergency management operations. Remember that all disasters and all emergencies are local. They start locally and they end locally.
Now if you look at the state homeland security grants, as long as there was a homeland security nexus, you were able to use those dollars as dual-purpose dollars to prepare to respond to terrorist activity but also to a natural disaster. That’s why we refer to all hazards, and so those dollars have been very important. I’ll give you a specific example. When we had these terrible floods that covered two-thirds of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties this year, we had to move resources from the western side of the state and stage them in the center of the state so they could respond to the flooding in the northeast and southeast parts of our commonwealth. Those resources—swift-water rescue boats, search and rescue teams, EMS agencies—were purchased with homeland security dollars.
Part of the tragedy of what’s happening with homeland security dollars is that we have built tremendous capacity in the United States with these dollars in the last 10 years, but there’s no money now to sustain capability that we’ve built. Like so many other federal programs in the past, things fall into disrepair. Last year, homeland security dollars to the state were cut 50 percent. This year, the omnibus budget that just got passed, we had expected there to be about $1.2 billion nationwide for state programs. It’s about $634 million, and a number of the programs funded in the past with that money have now been left to the discretion of the Secretary of Homeland Security. One of those is called the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI). We have two UASI cities in Pennsylvania: Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. I don’t know if the secretary’s going to fund the top five, the top 10, the top 15, we just don’t know.
What kind of information is exchanged between PEMA and the business community?
PEMA exchanges information about continuity of operations. We’ll ask, “If you’re a business in a community and you’re flooded out, what have you done to prepare for that?” When we lose a business in the community, we lose not only tax revenue, but we lose people’s places of employment. By preparing on the front-end and trying to use an all-hazards approach—maybe there is floodproofing or maybe there are things that could be done with holding ponds or whatever—we build in resilience. So we exchange that kind of planning information with our businesses.
The other thing we try to work with the private sector on is for businesses to have their own disaster recovery plans so that they can get back up quickly. Getting a business up in a community really helps that community move toward recovery. If you can get the Wal-Mart or the K-Mart open, the community sees that as a sign of normalcy returning. Part of the planning process for the business community is to look towards your workers being able to secure their families and then come back in to get your business operational again as quickly as possible. You also have to plan for the recovery of your electronic resources, your files, your records. Where are your supplies kept? What happens if distribution routes are disrupted because of an earthquake? Part of the emergency management side of the house is to work with the private sector to get them to plan and look at continuity of operations and resilience on an all-hazards basis.
What keeps you up at night?
I think the thing that keeps me up at night is “Are we prepared to deal with whatever that thing is [that] I don’t know is coming?” There’s a philosophy in disaster and emergency response: if you’re going to save lives, you’ve got to go fast, and you’ve got to go big. If you try and wait until you’re in the middle of the event to do that, you’ve lost already: a rescue mission turns into a body recovery mission. We’re in the business of saving people’s lives.