Philadelphia Emergency Management Official Addresses the City’s EOC, Building Relationships

MaryAnn Tierney, deputy managing director of the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management, has overseen a transformation of the city’s emergency preparedness program.

by Eric Holdeman / March 10, 2010

MaryAnn Tierney is the deputy managing director of the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management (OEM). Since arriving in Philadelphia in November 2006, Tierney has overseen a transformation of the city’s emergency preparedness program, focusing on developing operational emergency plans, conducting training and exercises for first responders, building partnerships with the private sector and community organizations, and providing many avenues for the public to learn about how to prepare for and stay informed during an emergency.

Previously Tierney spent more than seven years with the New York City Office of Emergency Management, ending her tenure there as the assistant commissioner for planning and preparedness.

What do you see as the greatest risks in priority order for the city of Philadelphia?

The risk of a terrorist attack in Philadelphia is certainly a concern and something that is a focus of planning, training and exercises with a variety of stakeholders, such as first responders, the health-care community and nonprofit organizations. Also, Philadelphia is prone to many of the hazards faced by other large cities across the county, such as flooding, fires and the failure of aging infrastructure. Many of these are magnified due to Philadelphia being a densely populated urban area.

Not a traditional risk, but I am also very aware of the risk of apathy. Apathy can exist in people and in government and can inhibit preparedness. A major focus of our work is motivating individuals to prepare themselves and their families for emergencies of any kind and motivating government to be in a constant state of readiness. As many of my peers will attest, this can be challenging, especially when people are focused elsewhere. There aren’t any easy solutions to this — it requires constant focus and creative thinking to engage and motivate people.

How does working in Philadelphia and working in New York City differ?

People often ask me this question. New York City and Philadelphia face very similar risks and have similar organizational, governmental and infrastructure systems, such as a mass transit system, an underground electric system, a steam system and mayor-council form of government. Many of the challenges faced by emergency managers in large cities are similar, often the only differentiating factor being the scale and scope of the issue.

For example, when I worked in New York City, the planning scenario for a worst-case shelter operation was 609,000; in Philadelphia it is 150,000. Many of the systems needed to manage 609,000 people are identical to those needed to manage 150,000; the key difference being the number of shelter clusters, the amount of equipment, supplies and the number of staff, etc.

Several years ago I heard you speak on taking large complex plans and breaking them down into smaller checklist formatted mediums. Are you still doing that today? If so, how do you see that concept fitting with the more traditional plans and emergency operations center (EOC) procedures?

Yes, I am still using this approach. Our world is more complex and connected. People have access to more information now than they ever did. Our communications are instant and 24/7. In the Information Age we have reached information saturation. Trying to wade through this can actually cause organizations to be less effective as they become paralyzed in a morass of information.

I think emergency management should focus more on planning, but planning is often set aside for other more “pressing” tasks. Properly managed planning processes create an environment where stakeholders can convene and discuss and agree upon response options. Planning documents can be the justification for purchasing technology and equipment to support the operation. Exercises are more realistic when you are operating from a common playbook.

Stakeholders involved in emergency response operations need relevant and realistic options to address the challenges they may face. This needs to be presented in a way that will resonate with them. Using checklists allows people to manage this complexity. It also provides for consistency in approach across individuals, resulting in a system that is functionally, rather than personality based.

There is more than one way to organize an EOC. What is the organizational structure you are using for your EOC in Philadelphia?

The Philadelphia EOC is organized around the Incident Command System (ICS), with emergency support functions designated as branches in the operations section. This addresses both the need to utilize the ICS and to work collaboratively within a particular discipline. It also provides a mechanism to integrate with field operations, such as incident command posts and area commands that may be established

What are you doing to gain and maintain executive and elected level support for your program in Philadelphia?

I am really lucky to have an engaged political leadership and an executive team that works very well together. Mayor [Michael] Nutter is very involved in our emergency preparedness efforts and is very engaged during emergency response operations. In the recent snowstorms, he attended briefings in the EOC. Previously he participated in an executive-level tabletop exercise.

Philadelphia’s executive team (all the department heads) meets weekly and this provides an opportunity to discuss important topics at the strategic level. We often discuss emergency preparedness activities. For example, when an emergency plan is revised a briefing is provided on those changes. This regular interaction is immensely helpful, from a communications as well as team-building perspective.

Your OEM program is now using some forms of social media.
          a.    How are you using it?
          b.    What advantages do you see in social media?
          c.    What lessons learned can you share with others who may be considering using social media?

We dove into the world of social networking in November 2008, and it has proved to be a powerful tool in our communications toolbox. We have a presence on the major social networking systems, such as Twitter, MySpace and Facebook. We tie our social networking program into our emergency text and e-mail alert system, known as ReadyNotifyPA. We see them as complementing each other. ReadyNotifyPA provides emergency alerts, and a small subset of nonemergency, but useful alert options, such as for traffic, weather, government closings, and most recently, crime. We use social networking to provide additional detail during emergencies that do not rise to the level of a ReadyNotifyPA alert, which we preserve for larger emergencies.

For example, in the recent round of blizzards that have affected Philadelphia, we used our social networking sites to provide updates on emergency conditions, such as power outages and fallen trees, road conditions, and information on city operations, such as trash collection. We also use the sites to interact with the public and provide additional information if requested. For example, in a recent storm we received several inquiries regarding trash collection. This prompted us to post more detailed info on collections to answer the questions. Lastly we also use them to gauge what the public is interested in or discussing and then we tailor messages for more traditional media sources so that it reaches a wider audience.

I think it is important to remember that social media is a tool; it is not the solution to communicating with the public. It provides an opportunity to reach a segment of the public, but cannot be your primary or sole means of reaching people. I think it is something that requires planning before it is launched because you need to know how you are going to use it so that you can set and manage expectations and also be consistent, which goes to the credibility of your organization.

Government budgets are tight everywhere. Have you had to take budget cuts, and if so, in what areas did you take them?

Our budget was cut in November 2007 and since then we have not seen our budget reduced. We have worked closely to leverage grant funds, not just homeland security grant funds, but also Recovery Act funds. We recently learned we were awarded a Recovery Act grant to develop an energy assurance (power disruption) plan. Tough times call for creative solutions and creative financing. Our office has the highest grant-to-operating budget ratio in the public safety area, which shows we are using the tax dollars we are allocated judiciously and augmenting them with grant dollars to accomplish our mission.

What approaches are you using to build regional coalitions with neighboring emergency management organizations?

The five counties in Southeastern Pennsylvania have a task force that administers the region’s homeland security grant dollars. We are at the tail end of a multiyear reorganization that started with re-engineering our structure, hiring professional staff, redrafting governing documents, enacting a new mutual-aid agreement, and retaining an independent fiscal agent. We have already seen the dividends of many of these changes in that we are more organized and better supported to carry out complex multiagency, multijurisdictional projects.

Since 1998, the task force has worked diligently to invest in programs that have led to some of the most comprehensive solutions to many of the issues emergency managers and emergency response professionals face every day. I also think that the approach taken has allowed for unique partnerships between government, the private sector and nonprofits. For example, we partnered with the region’s health-care council to develop a Specialized Medical Response Team, complete with a portable hospital and a cadre of medical professional volunteers. This team was deployed to the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh and was heavily involved in a plan we developed to receive the injured from earthquake ravaged Haiti.

In addition to the five-county task force, the region also supports a four-state, 12-county collaboration program for information sharing, interoperable communications and evacuation.

Is there anything else you would like to share with Emergency Management magazine readers?

I encourage people to visit our Web site to learn more about our office —

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