A Conversation With Denver's Director of Emergency Management

Dan Alexander discusses his emergency management experience and has advice for others in the field.

by / June 10, 2010
National Energy Technology Laboratory/Department of Energy

Dan Alexander is the director of Denver's Office of Emergency Management. He entered emergency management with a background in law enforcement and has been an emergency management director for two medium-sized cities. He discussed with Emergency Management magazine his background, his experience as an emergency management director and much more.

You come from a law enforcement background. How has that helped or hindered you in being an emergency management professional?

My law enforcement background, I think, has actually helped me as an emergency manager. Back in Wisconsin, emergency management was really comprised of both fire and law enforcement, though it may have tilted a little more toward the fire service. Coming from law enforcement allowed me to bring even more law enforcement entities to the table, since I was perceived as being one of them. I did quickly recognize that an emergency manager is in a delicate position. In many ways, the job is about relationships — building them, nurturing them and striving for continual inclusion. You have to be very careful about the perception of being aligned to one specific discipline.

You have been the director for two medium-sized cities, Milwaukee and Denver. What are some of the significant differences that you have found by making the switch from one city to the other?

Actually I have found my experiences to be similar. Both Milwaukee and Denver face the same natural hazards: tornadoes, severe weather, blizzards, etc.

The biggest difference between the two cities is how they are organized around their emergency management and homeland security programs. In Wisconsin, emergency management and the use of homeland security funding, was very much centered around local initiatives, relationships and building local capability. This allowed for local agencies to develop relationships with their neighboring jurisdictions and to develop a regional construct from the ground up, something that is very important and successful.

Since moving to Denver, I was surprised and impressed to see the level of regional integration that had occurred. The state had defined emergency management/homeland security regions, and a coordinator exists within each region to facilitate the development of homeland security strategies, grant funding and information sharing, among other things. Therefore, there was a lot of integration in planning and capability building across entire regions.

I also think the [2008] Democratic National Convention greatly helped in forming a more regional approach to emergency management. I started my position after the convention, but what I learned of planning for the event, and what I observed as its aftermath, highlighted for me the fact that to put on such an event, you have to act regionally. And I am impressed that that regional concept has been sustained.

Has there been anything significant that you have found in the state laws of either Colorado or Wisconsin that provide an advantage you would like to have had in your present or previous position?

Actually I found Wisconsin and Colorado to be very similar in their political makeups and their structure. Both states are home rule states, where political power is pushed to the lowest levels of government. This can sometimes be perceived as an impediment in emergency management when trying to develop statewide initiatives. Also, both states are similar in that the state emergency management agency is not the same as the state’s administrative agency for homeland security grant funding. I was used to dealing with separate agencies in the emergency management and homeland security aspects of my job.

Regarding state laws, the Wisconsin Legislature had incorporated certain local [hazardous materials] teams as a state asset, covering their liability, workman’s’ compensation issues, etc., when those services were requested by another jurisdiction. This proved to be a tremendous help in promoting regional mutual aid. It would be great to have this type of legislation in Colorado, especially if it was extended to other specialty teams for mutual aid.

I think of the Incident Command System (ICS) as being stronger in the western states because of the wildfire experiences than what you might find in the East or Midwest. Has that been your experience?

I would have thought the same thing, but I think ICS has really taken hold throughout the country. When I was a police officer in Milwaukee, ICS was being taught and implemented within our response protocols. I also saw it being implemented as the city’s emergency management director. After coming to Denver, I saw the region working to create incident management teams, and the implementation of incident command on a daily basis. At least in my experience, the best practices lessons and the requirements from the Department of Homeland Security have really taken hold and that ICS is regarded as the best way to manage a response. Some agencies and regions may have had more intimate experience with it, and there may be varying levels of implementation, but overall, I think there has been an acceptance of its principles.

The key is to continue pushing agencies and jurisdictions to continual self-improvement. Just because an agency uses the term “incident commander” or “section chief” does not mean they are fully implementing ICS. There needs to be a real commitment on the part of a jurisdiction or agency to understand the concepts of ICS and to implement them. This is where I see a major role for emergency management. It is the job of emergency management to be that ICS resource for their jurisdiction — to help agencies understand its concepts and encourage its proper implementation.

What are your priorities for your program now that you have your feet on the ground in Denver?

Since starting in Denver, my primary priorities have been to better align our emergency and homeland security functions, not only in the city and county of Denver, but also throughout the metropolitan area. I am interested in ensuring that there is a regional connection between all of the efforts across the region that covers the UASI [Urban Areas Security Initiative], MMRS [Metropolitan Medical Response System] and HSGP [Homeland Security Grant Program] programs. This was largely in place when I started, but I want to make sure this is reinforced, that we have to think and act regionally.

We have started many initiatives in Denver, including devising a strategy that integrates the private sector more into our information sharing environment and EOC operations. We have private-sector representatives that respond to the EOC during activations, and we have partnered with our private sector consortium to provide real-time information during large-scale incidents.

Other initiatives that we continue to develop include the creation of the city’s Critical Infrastructure Protection Program, which is housed in the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. I am very fortunate that the police and fire departments have assigned full-time personnel to my office to staff this division. We also rely on other city agencies in a part time capacity, however, these individuals are charged with the implementation of the ACAMS [Automated Critical Asset Management System] project, buffer zone protection program, and private-sector integration.

We have a couple of other priorities, including reinvigorating our Local Emergency Planning Committee to achieve more citizen involvement in our activities. A current major initiative involves the Denver Urban Area Security Initiative, which I manage in my office, to hold an international homeland security conference in Denver from Dec. 13-16, 2010. This conference was born out of our experience of sending a delegation of emergency managers, police, fire, and health and medical personnel to Israel to train and learn from their peers. The idea is to bring those we met in Israel, as well as others from throughout the world and our own government, to talk about emerging trends, best practices, etc., to an audience of our peers in the United States. This is, as far as I know, the first time a UASI has done something like this. Please visit www.sharedstrategiesconference.com to learn more and sign up.

What advice would you give another emergency manager who is about to move from one jurisdiction to another to take over an emergency management program?

I would simply say, “Make sure you get out and meet your stakeholder groups early.” This is both within your jurisdiction and outside of your agency — your regional partners. You certainly don’t want to be an island. This also includes your elected officials. Providing visibility to them on who you are and what your program is all about will pay huge dividends. As we all know, emergency management is not always the highest priority or even understood by some of our elected officials. The earlier you can bring them into our world, the better.

Every state takes different approaches to how they integrate emergency management and homeland security. Do you favor states having the two be combined or separated, and why?

I understand both arguments for either having them combined or separated. Having now worked in two states in which they are separate agencies, I am of the opinion that there is greater coordination, integration and less bureaucracy when they are combined agencies. I have seen many examples of where a lack of a coordinated vision between the two agencies has led to confusion and frustration on the part of the end user( i.e., the local emergency manager and first responder). Planning and capability enhancement must go hand in hand with operations and service delivery.

When people approach you about how to get into the field of emergency management what advice do you give them?

Since moving to Denver, I have actually had quite a few people come to me for advice of how to get into the field. Just about all of these people have come from local colleges or universities, which is very encouraging. There is a real academic movement surrounding emergency management, which furthers the “professionalization” of our field.

I do tell them, however, that experience is essential. Contact an emergency management office and offer to do internships. Getting experience in an operational, planning, or training and exercise environment is critical. Also taking the suite of FEMA courses is helpful so that prospective candidates are not starting fresh in terms of FEMA requirements.

Eric Holdeman Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.

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