Preparedness & Recovery

Michael Byrne Shares Wisdom From Decades of Emergency Management Experience and his Recent Haiti Experience

Byrne, FEMA National Incident Management Assistant team leader, hit the ground running in his new position.

by / October 4, 2010

Michael Byrne is a National Incident Management Assistance Team (IMAT) leader for FEMA. Byrne is a veteran of the New York City Fire Department and served as director of the New York City Office of Emergency Management.

Byrne has been senior vice president of ICF International; justice and public safety director for Microsoft; and senior director of preparedness, response and recovery for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

This spring, he took time out from a speaking engagement at the Resilient Communications for Emergency Response conference to talk with Emergency Management magazine about his deployment to Haiti. 

Can you explain what IMATs are and how many of them there are?

Each region has a regional IMAT, but there are two national teams. The national teams handle what we refer to as “Type 1 level events.” So Type 1 events are the largest types of disasters that we can handle, and that’s what we’re in place for.

You were deployed to Haiti a couple of weeks after being sworn in. Can you tell me about that experience and put that into perspective for us?

There’s nothing better than to start a job and actually get thrown into what you dream about doing. Haiti was, I think, the largest humanitarian disaster of our lifetimes in the Western Hemisphere. It’s faded from the headlines, but we can’t forget that more than 220,000 lost their lives. We still have people living under pieces of plastic sheeting; more than 1.2 million people are still living like that. It’s still an ongoing event and still requires a lot of focus and assistance from the international community.

Can you expand on the difficulties the Haitian people faced when the quake hit?

First of all, it’s got to be said that Haitian people are incredibly strong and resilient. I was impressed every day in the three months I was there. Haitian people are definitely survivors and they really have done as best as could be done because it’s a really difficult disaster. You had a combination of events: You had underlying poverty that is very severe. You had construction that was unreinforced masonry for the majority with concrete roofs, which in an earthquake scenario is one of the worst possible combinations. And then add to that the congestion within Port au Prince, which was designed, from what the Haitian government has told me, for about 350,000 people. There are more than 2 million people living there.

What lessons could we take away from the Haiti situation that would apply to the United States?

We can learn from it in terms of how to do really basic, down-and-dirty kinds of assistance. Start looking at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Get people water, and maybe it’s not bottled water all the time. Maybe it’s large five-gallon pails of water, which is what we distributed; basic shelter using plastic sheeting. I’m not saying we want people to stay in those conditions for long, but for the emergency part, to stop the loss of life, there are rapid things we can do. On the preparedness side, looking at our building codes. If there was ever an example of how not to build in the earthquake-prone zone, this is one of them.

What were the biggest problems in coordinating aid to Haiti?

International disasters are run differently because you have the United Nations lead, you have a large number of nongovernmental organizations; and by large number I mean an excessive 400 to 500 of these organizations. They’re the resource providers. And then the internationals like the United States, and in this case, Canada and the European Union, Japan and a lot of the nations are the donors bringing funding. Trying to coordinate all those moving parts is obviously more complicated than doing it domestically where we have very clear-cut, local, state and federal responsibilities under the Stafford Act.

I’m going to switch gears a little bit to state and local government. How can officials here make your job easier and facilitate a working relationship with the federal government?

I have to refer back to Haiti just for a second. At the end of the day, this is about relationships. We don’t stop being human beings because we have a disaster and because we’re doing a certain process. Really the best thing we could do is get to know each other, come to events where we communicate and talk about our issues. Because by having those relationships ahead of time, our structures and our processes are good, they’re solid. But without the relationships, they would still fall apart, just like anything else.

How does FEMA prepare for a local emergency before one is declared? Is building a relationship a part of preparation?

One of the other things that current FEMA leadership is doing is developing a foundational doctrine. What is it that we focus on? We’ve established relationships; now we get together; how do we come to decisions together?

I mean simple things: life safety first; basic needs and shelter first — those kinds of things and how we’ll sort of work through these issues, how we’ll channel them in terms of who’s responsible.

Do the relationships develop over time?

We develop an affinity with people we go to battle with that we work big disasters with. We gain each others’ trust, and right now, the country has some extraordinary leaders at the federal level, state and local levels.

This is where I’d say that the post-9/11 grant programs are starting to have an impact. Of course it’s not taking care of everybody’s needs, but the grant programs are having an impact as we’re seeing a lot more dedicated resources, professionalism and unity of effort around structures like the National Incident Management System for one, that is making us a stronger emergency management community in the United States.


Jim McKay Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at