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Volume 27, Issue 3

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Halstead Keeping His ‘Boots on the Ground’

Untitled-1David Halstead obviously has not strayed far from his background of the ready boots and bunker suit, the klaxon, and the highly polished red engines. With office walls adorned with pictures and memorabilia reflecting his fire-fighter background, Halstead is head of the Florida Division of Emergency Management. He has had a life-long career in the emergency management world, with his roots in the fire-fighting community in the city of Altamonte Springs, Florida. After his retirement from that arena, he came to Tallahassee to work for the State Emergency Response Team (SERT). When the former director Craig Fugate left to become FEMA Administrator in May 2009, Halstead accepted the governor’s invitation to serve as division interim deputy director. He was confirmed as the permanent director in April of 2010.

His “boots on the ground” philosophy permeates the division.

“Our mission is to support the local emergency manager in any way we can, right down to the local on-scene commander. Everything we do is geared to that end,” said Halstead. “Just like the local fire department, our primary activity when not activated is to train, train again, and train some more! Its not only training for the local communities, but training for our EOC staff. We have some really sharp people, but suffer from a lot of turnover, as staff answer the call to higher paying offers. Keeping our organization honed to be able to come together and react rapidly is vital.”

However, this year has proven difficult to meet that training challenge. The Florida Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was activated for almost half of 2010 – 29 days for Haiti Earthquake Relief and 120 days for the Deepwater Horizon event. He said the problem with both of these events was “Nobody had ever done it before! The scope of both disasters was overwhelming.”

According to Halstead, the Haiti relief effort presented unique organizational challenges as it involved the repatriation of some 26,000 individuals and moving massive relief supplies in and out of Florida, with all the logistical coordination issues associated with that effort. The Deepwater Horizon event presented some other unique challenges.

“While ICS functions worked well at the local level such as at the well-head, the functions seemed to break down when all activities were directed out of the Unified Command Center in Mobile,” said Halstead. “They tried to run the operation like the Exxon Valdez, which was a localized event. It wasn’t! We’ve never had an event that spanned five states like this event did.”

He said the Unified Command Center had more than 1,000 positions that caused immense confusion and breakdowns in communication.

“We kept trying to force our portion of the response back into our EOC,” said Halstead, “because we knew that we were organized for any type of response and wanted to head off the ‘re-invent the wheel’ syndrome.”

More importantly, he emphasized, was that this massive ad-hoc organization (the Unified Command Center) often forgot to include the local emergency management in either planning or execution.

“If it had been me,” he said, “I would have used the Emergency Support Function structure to coordinate the effort. First, FEMA would be in charge, simply from the coordination standpoint.”

He emphasized that the overlapping and conflicting areas of responsibility force this type of structure, with the Coast Guard in charge of response, NOAA with the fisheries, EPA with the coastal cleanup and providing input with respect to the release of dispersants and conduct of controlled burns.

“I felt that growing the ICS structure too large without going to the Emergency Support Function (ESF) organization, coupled with ignoring the local knowledge and organizations, were the biggest problems with the Deepwater Horizon event,” said Halstead.

“They tried to tell us how we were going to protect and clean up Florida’s coastline. That wasn’t going to happen and we made that perfectly clear. Nobody knows our territory, local waters, tides, currents, and sensitive areas like our local people. We knew that our organizational structure and the experience we gained from our seasons of wild fires and the bad hurricane years gave us a unique advantage to be able to manage the efforts in our area.

“On the other side of the Deepwater Horizons issue, if we hadn’t had a responsible organization like BP, with the deep pockets they have, a disaster of this magnitude would have been an unbelievable economic catastrophe when the local communities would be forced to cough up 25 percent of the burden. If this had been a federal disaster, we’d still be submitting paperwork hoping to get re-imbursement.”

We spent some time discussing the relationships between the public and private sectors, and how that has become increasingly important. He noted that the Florida EOC has one section (ESF 18 –business, industry and economic stabilization) which is dedicated to the private business sector.

“We have come to recognize that the public resources can’t do it alone,” he said. “Private industry plays a key role in handling a disaster, as we learned in our responses to the 2004-2005 hurricane seasons.”

He explained how the state now coordinates with the big box retailers to find out who will be available, so that the state can then direct public resources where private coverage is lacking.

“These organizations should be applauded for the amount of money they have dedicated to their own readiness for emergency relief,” said Halstead. “Organizations like Publix, Home Depot, and CVS pharmacies have really stepped up to the plate. They’re ready. If their roof’s not blown off, they’re ready to power up their generators and open up tomorrow.

“I try to keep focus on how we can help the private sector get back up and running following a disaster, because that’s how they can help us help everyone else.”

Current activities for the ESF 18 are emphasizing the “stabilization” portion of their function, with involvement in assisting the coordination of the economic relief efforts within Florida.

As an aside, he recognized that perhaps there is even more they could do to assist the private sector in their recovery efforts. We discussed the issue of credentialing.

“Florida does not have a credentialing program,” said Halstead. “We believe this should remain at the local level.”

We discussed the issues that relief crews faced in Katrina and other events finding a single point of contact to be able to ensure that relief crews could get through an over-zealous sheriff who is doing his job trying to make sure his area is secure.

“ESF 18 is the key,” he said, noting they can coordinate with law enforcement and security to resolve any issues. At the same time, he said these coordination efforts should ideally be made ahead of time and should always remain first at the local level whenever possible.

Halstead commented on the outreach efforts at coordination such as the Critical Incident Protocol developed by Brit Weber at the University of Michigan and the Meta-Leadership Summit program hosted by the CDC foundation. While his division is not involved in bringing either of these activities into Florida, his division is involved in similar active educational and coordination programs both directly through the division’s Web site, and through the state-wide exercises they conduct.

“We stress that these efforts should begin locally, and just like during a real incident, we will step up when our support is requested,” said Halstead. “We also send staff out to the local coordinators to assist with training, whenever they ask for our help.”

He stressed that cities and counties are the key, reflecting back to his “boots on the ground” philosophy.

Halstead noted that we have had five years of minimal hurricane activity affecting Florida, his burly knuckles knocking on the polished wood table. His division has been battling the “hurricane amnesia” problem every year since, in both the public and private sectors.

“The biggest problem is keeping the message fresh every year, whether it be for hurricanes or wildfires,” he said, reminding me of his fire-fighter background. “Personal and corporate readiness is the key.”

The division’s Web site includes resources for family preparedness and business readiness planning, with the theme and message changing to help keep it fresh.

Halstead combines that keep-it-fresh approach to direct a complex, flexible, and highly successful division poised in readiness, just like the boots and bunker suits that stand ready for the next crisis.

Ken Schroeder, CBCP, is vice president for business continuity at Southeast Corporate. He is responsible for the life cycle management of all business continuity functions. Schroeder is a member of the Disaster Recovery Journal Editorial Advisory Board and the PPBI Board of Directors.