Emergency Management Director Relates the ‘Philadelphia Experience’

Liam O’Keefe discusses the transformation of the city’s emergency preparedness program.

by Eric Holdeman / November 16, 2011
Flickr CC/jaymarable Flickr CC/jaymarable

Liam O’Keefe is the director of the Philadelphia Office Emergency Management (OEM). O’Keefe oversees the day-to-day direction and operations, guiding emergency response and recovery activities for the agency, as well as managing and monitoring agency programs, activities and resources.

Since joining the office in March 2007, O’Keefe has assisted in overseeing a transformation of the city’s emergency preparedness program; hiring new staff; focusing on developing operational emergency plans; conducting training and exercises for first responders; building partnerships with the private sector and community organizations; and providing the public social media tools to learn how to prepare for and stay informed during an emergency.

He responded to a series of questions about his experiences and priorities as the emergency manager of one of America’s largest cities.

Where were you on 9/11 and how did you react to the day’s events?

I had just completed the interview process for a planning position with the New York City Office of Emergency Management (NYC OEM) about two weeks prior to 9/11. I was offered a position, but was told that it would take a little while to get the paperwork to bring me on board.

On the morning of 9/11, I was in my home, just north of New York City watching the events unfold on the television. I was devastated and frustrated that I wasn’t able to contribute to the response. Shortly thereafter, I received a phone call from city’s OEM asking me to report to Pier 92 for duty. I spent the next 18 months assisting in the management of citywide recovery efforts.

Describe the journey that the Philadelphia OEM has been on for the last five years.

In 2007, my predecessor (MaryAnn Tierney) and I were given the sizeable task of building an emergency management program from the ground up. In fewer than five years, we dramatically expanded the agency from five to 27 full-time emergency managers; stood up a 24/7 watch command center; made numerous enhancements to technology, equipment and facilities; and fully incorporated the OEM into the emergency response apparatus in the fifth largest city in the country.

What has been your major challenge as a relatively new big city emergency management director?
With major reductions in funding over the past few years, sustaining the capacity that we worked so hard to build stands out as the single greatest challenge I face. This comes in the form of avoiding cuts to critical areas of the office, but also retaining the exceptional talent that we have invested in over the years.

Philadelphia was early in the adoption of social media tools. What is your strategy for using social media and have you realized any benefits from social media use in your various program areas?

Social media has provided us with another set of tools for public communication, both routine and emergency communication. Social media removes obstacles and provides for easy dialog. We utilize social media to keep the public informed before, during and after emergencies. For instance, we provided updates and preparedness information the week leading up to Hurricane Irene. When the hurricane hit, we posted up-to-the minute reports and after the storm, educated citizens on how to recover. Outside of emergencies, social media enables us to promote emergency preparedness throughout the year with weekly tips and preparedness videos. As for the benefits, social media directly connects us with the public, enables us to mine information and correct any misconceptions.

What are the major hazards and risks that you are concerned about for your community and the region?
As the fifth largest city in the nation, the birthplace of American independence and geographically positioned between New York City and Washington, D.C., I am very concerned about the threat of terrorism.

Natural disasters are certainly not uncommon in Philadelphia. This past year alone we managed through two federally declared coastal storms, a tornado, two earthquakes, two major snowstorms and multiple river flooding events.

Much of our planning efforts are functionally based as opposed to hazard specific, therefore we have great flexibility when coordinating the response to any of the above hazards.

What approach have you taken for engaging regional governmental partners outside of city government to take a multi-jurisdictional approach in all things emergency management?

Philadelphia has a superb relationship with its partners in southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. We collaborate on major emergency management projects, such as evacuation planning, and lean on one another regularly for support.

Snowstorms are not typically big disasters, yet emergency management is drawn into these events. What lessons did you learn from last winter's storms?

Old Man Winter has no doubt taken a liking to Philadelphia. In the past two years, Philadelphia has had five storms with a foot or more of snow. We are constantly reminded of the importance of keeping the health and hospital community well informed prior to an event, while also urging them to be proactive and take the appropriate measures to prepare their patients and staff for the storm. The biggest lesson we learned pertains to dialysis centers. They are generally well prepared but will require assistance with coordination and transportation if a storm is severe enough or of longer duration. We communicate with dialysis providers early and often and have developed a system for prioritizing critical patients. Keeping nonemergency vehicles off the roads is also critical, especially in densely populated areas where a stuck vehicle can quickly cause a gridlock.

As you look to hire staff for your program, what qualities and experience are you looking for?

In my opinion, the most effective emergency managers are those who are professional, smart, organized, exceptional listeners, strong communicators, strategic thinkers, detail oriented and most importantly, those who execute.

Some of Philadelphia OEM’s strongest emergency managers have come from disciplines completely unrelated to public safety, including architecture and design, urban planning, geography, public health and business.

How do you balance "boots on the ground" experience with the need for technical and technological expertise that is sometimes only found with younger staff?

While “boots on the ground” experience is very important when selecting candidates, it is not necessarily a requirement.

Some believe that emergency management agencies should be exclusively managed and staffed by those that spent numerous years in the uniformed services. I disagree and believe that the skill sets and competencies of emergency managers should complement and balance, not necessarily mirror, the skill sets and competencies of those in the uniformed services — who ultimately are the client to emergency managers.

Having a healthy balance of experienced public safety veterans and skillful personnel without a public safety background complements one another and seems to work very nicely in Philadelphia.

Is there anything else you would like to share about your "Philadelphia experience?"

The size and scale of Philadelphia coupled with the support of political leadership makes Philadelphia a superb location for innovation and creates unique opportunities when building an emergency management agency. Philadelphians have great pride and are very protective of their city, culture and of one another. This is reflected in city government, where everyone not only works exceptionally well together, but also looks out for one another.