Regional Collaboration: Rural Style

Darrell Ruby discusses collaboration in Region 9.

by / August 13, 2015

Darrell Ruby is the regional coordinator for Washington State Homeland Security (HLS) Region 9 for Greater Spokane Emergency Management (GSEM) in Washington state. (This is not a Washington State Emergency Management Division position). Region 9 is composed of the 10 counties and three tribes of eastern Washington. His role is to support regional collaboration, coordination and an interagency approach to all-hazard emergency preparedness.

For more than 10 years, he has served GSEM in all phases of emergency management supporting planning, training, exercises, HLS grants and grant-related projects. He is a certified emergency manager, Incident Command System (ICS) trainer, has an undergraduate degree in construction science from Texas A&M University, a master’s degree in business, and remains active in the naval reserve as an explosive ordnance disposal officer. He responded to a series of questions about what makes a successful regional rural approach to emergency management.

Q: Describe your region, its geopolitical makeup, geography and character for the counties you serve.

A: The 10 counties and three tribes composing Region 9 are located in the eastern part of the state. The region stretches from the Canadian border south to Oregon, and the region shares its eastern border with Idaho. It covers an area of approximately 16,455 square miles, or nearly 25 percent of the state. As a reference, Region 9 is larger size-wise than eight states. The northern Rocky Mountains are found in the northeast corner of the region. The Blue Mountains are found in the southeast corner where Washington borders Oregon and Idaho. The Columbia/Central Basin lies in the center. The Region contains parts of the Snake and Columbia rivers, along with numerous tributaries.

Eastern Washington experiences a diverse climate due to its location east of the Cascade mountain range and between the northern Rockies and the Blue Mountains.
With more than 629,000 residents, Region 9 makes up approximately 9.4 percent of the state’s population. Population density in Region 9 is sparse. Densities range from a low of just 3.2 persons per square mile (Garfield County) to a high of 266.7 (Spokane County). The rural nature of Region 9 can present challenges to emergency management activities and expose vulnerabilities within the community. Limited resources and long distances between available critical response assets can make it more challenging for the region to respond to a crisis. In addition, low populations can make it difficult for jurisdictions to purchase equipment, supplies and training due to a relatively low tax base, or when competing against more populous jurisdictions for limited federal, state and local funds.

Q: What type of leadership style do you think works in regional endeavors?

A: I believe a variety of leadership styles work; the most important trait is to be authentic. As I reflect on my region and other regional leaders I have worked with and admire, I see a myriad of leadership styles. I believe the most affective leaders are those who listen first, earn the trust of regional partners, and being true to themselves, adapt their leadership to increase regional capacity and established outcomes. I believe key leadership attributes are the four C’s: Coordination, Cooperation, Communication and Collaboration. Using all four of these tools is essential for an effective regional approach to emergency management.

Q: Everyone seems to agree that effective relationship is key to the successful execution of emergency management programs. How have you seen that play out in your own experiences?

A: I believe and often tell people, that the people and our relationships are the strength (and weakness due to limited numbers) of our region. I have seen so many times where outcomes were influenced in very positive ways simply because of a relationship that helped overcome or solve a problem. I have seen small, rural communities aided through relationships of neighboring jurisdictions, regional and statewide partners during disasters impacting their communities. Similarly, I have seen smaller problems, obstacles and plans created or improved when requests were made to get help. I have personally benefited numerous times through assistance of regional partners and through collaboration with regional colleagues across the state.

Q: Beside the counties that you help coordinate, you also have all your jurisdictions face the state of Idaho. What opportunities or challenges has that presented?

A: Unfortunately the transparent state border between Idaho and Washington causes some challenges. Too often, agencies, and disciplines in particular, get hung up when issues cross the “transparent” state line. Challenges are fairly straightforward: The statutes and priorities in Idaho are different from Washington and organizational structures are different. The advantage and strength that come from that is we get the opportunity to work with additional agencies, departments and jurisdictions with tremendous and diverse experience.

Our relationship by agency and discipline is outstanding. I have probably learned and observed the best demonstration of how negligible the state border can be in planning, training and exercise support to our health-care system. The health-care system does not care so much about a jurisdictional or state border as with providing the required care in the fastest and to the most appropriate facility, based on severity of the injuries. In our region, we really have three inter-state urban or metro areas (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene, Pullman/Moscow, and Asotin/Lewiston). Each area has unique strengths and weaknesses; when leveraged efficiently, they provide tremendous additional capacity.

Q: You have a very large region of nine counties, with only one major urban area and the rest being much more rural. How has that played out in bringing people together to work on common solutions?

A: The success of regional construct relies upon the leadership, support and communication by each county and tribal emergency management director/deputy director having the authority and support to represent their jurisdiction. That authority, integrated collaboratively with the same authority to represent their respective disciplines by the regional, multidiscipline steering committee members from law enforcement, fire service, public works, and the health-care coalition, align as a focused regional multiagency coordination group to implement all-hazard emergency preparedness.

The agencies, departments and jurisdictions (cities and towns) in Spokane provide significant resources and capability for Region 9. Spokane makes up more than 70 percent of our regional population. More than 70 percent of our region geographically comprises nine counties and three tribes within the region. Whenever I travel outside Spokane, and I hate to admit, sometimes that is not frequent enough, I am reminded of the importance of coordination, cooperation, collaboration and communication with all regional partners. A significant number of our regional first responders are volunteers. The tireless dedication, sacrifice and commitment shown by this group is staggering

Q: What do you think works best to try to get an “all of government” and whole community approach executed on a regional basis? Or are these type of efforts best left to individual communities?

A: I believe the whole community approach has to start at the local or tribal level. We should leverage the trusted organizations at those levels to help with public education and preparedness messaging. Public safety partners do not always (often unfortunately) have the trust and credibility within a community. Nongovernmental organizations do that and should be leveraged.

Q: Homeland security grants and funding provided an opportunity to bring many different disciplines together. What types of regional projects were you able to accomplish with these funds?

A: Initially, our region came together primarily to administer and coordinate homeland security grants. Through the years, the region has accomplished so much more, including creating and strengthening capabilities at the agency and jurisdiction levels, as well as regionally and being better able to help our state and interstate partners. Following a large regional threat and risk assessment and strategic planning process in 2011, Region 9 entered into a cooperative agreement. That agreement was established to support regional collaboration/coordination and an interagency/interjurisdictional approach to implement all-hazard emergency preparedness across Washington State Homeland Security Region 9.

The Region 9 Coordinating Group was established to implement recommendations and strategies in the Washington State Region 9 All-Hazard Emergency Preparedness Strategic Plan. It is intended to utilize an interagency hierarchy that maintains local government and agency self-sufficiency while providing a mechanism across Region 9 to plan, organize, equip, train and exercise to enhance, build and maintain appropriate regional capabilities. We will not duplicate or replace existing organizational structures that are already in place, but fill coordination/collaboration gaps where they exist.

Some of the local and regional projects and capabilities created or enhanced are:
•    Strengthened and solidified relationships
•    Support to many local, regional, inter- and intra-state planning, training and exercises
•    Enhanced local and regional hazmat capability through equipping, training and exercise
•    Created and supported the development of a Type II Urban Search and Rescue (USAR)
•    Enhanced and supported the local/regional explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team (Spokane Police/Spokane Sheriff combined team)
•    Enhanced local and regional interoperable communication infrastructure and equipment requirements
•    Purchased mobile command vehicles, trailers, caches of equipment and ancillary support
•    Enhanced operational coordination and emergency operations center/emergency communications center (EOC/ECC), and incident command system/incident management team (ICS/IMT) interface challenges
•    Sponsored All Hazard Incident Management Team Type 3 training and position-specific training
•    Provided support to Eastern Region Emergency Medical System, Region 9 Healthcare Coalition, and Public Health Emergency Preparedness Region 9 for planning, training and exercise
•    Provided support to local and tribal agencies during response

Q: Now that homeland security funding is waning, how do you see that impacting the ability to coalesce people and agencies for regional types of endeavors?

A: We saw a dramatic reduction in homeland security funding a few years ago. The last few years, it has remained relatively stable. As a region, our partners have prioritized keeping people over simply purchasing “stuff” or additional equipment. In addition, we have prioritized the sustainment of capabilities over trying to create additional capabilities. The limited funds have made it difficult for some of the smaller jurisdictions in particular to continue to support planning, training and exercises. We strive to leverage technologies (webinars, teleconference) whenever possible; however, nothing replaces the advantage of meeting face to face.

Q: What role do you see elected officials playing in regional emergency management work?

A: Elected officials play an essential role in emergency management. As our elected leaders, we need them to be trained (in ICS and be all-hazard aware) and involved in all elements of our capability-based approach: planning, training, organizing and equipping. We also need their support and to provide input and direction across all phases of emergency management and the identified mission areas (prevention, protection, response, recovery, mitigation). We need their support pre- and post-incident/event. As constituents, it is important for us to see and hear our elected leaders, especially during response and recovery to provide calm leadership, and credibility across our organizations.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about the opportunities and challenges of regional emergency management work?

A: I love my job as regional coordinator. I get to work with some amazingly talented, dedicated, and experienced public safety professionals, volunteers, and elected leaders. In Region 9, that is both an opportunity and a challenge. I truly believe the strength of our region is our people, citing the attributes I mentioned above. With that being said, because our region is relatively rural, the numbers and depth of our greatest resource, the people, can be exhausted very quickly. I believe in a regional approach to emergency management. It can be efficient, but it must be implemented cautiously and with collaboration with all of our customers (first responders, senior and elected leaders, and our citizens). I will add that because the term “regional” can be used in such a myriad of situations, the term itself really needs to be explained in nearly every context.


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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