Wisconsin Emergency Management Administrator Ed Wall Hopes to Bridge the Gap

Law enforcement background may lend itself to today's link between emergency management and homeland security.

by / December 30, 2009
Barry Bahler/FEMA

Ed Wall recently assumed the role of Wisconsin’s emergency management administrator. State directors come in many shapes, sizes and backgrounds. Wall comes with a law enforcement background. This might suit him well as he integrates emergency management and homeland security within his department.

Wall started his public service career in 1982 while in college in Connecticut working full time as an EMT. As a college senior he was hired at the Meriden, Conn., Police Department. He worked almost four years there as a patrolman, then five as a state trooper before making detective in the Narcotics Investigation Unit. He moved his family to Wisconsin, taking a job with the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation, working in undercover narcotics, technical services and intelligence before being promoted to special agent in charge of the Investigative Services Bureau.

His responsibilities at the bureau included homeland security, the Joint Terrorism Task Forces, the Intelligence Unit and the development and operation of the state's first fusion center, the Wisconsin Statewide Information Center (WSIC).

Q: You have worked extensively with getting Wisconsin's fusion center up and operating. What were/are the challenges in doing that?

The challenges were many. When the fusion center idea came along nobody really had a good handle on what it should be. There were lofty goals and visionary ideas, but no manual on how to do it. We were given a CD-ROM on information sharing and told to make it happen. Fortunately I had very talented staff that was able to see the vision, seize the moment and run. We had some funding up front from the state’s Office of Justice Assistance, which really made the initial steps much easier. The other big issue in our success was the role the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had as the centers matured. They’ve become mentors, trainers and excellent partners.

Although we had funding to get “things,” the real challenge was securing funds for personnel. DHS had originally put a two-year window on funding for intelligence analysts, which is the backbone of any fusion center. We, along with many other states, were facing a funding crisis when that two-year window approached. Fortunately there was a combined plea from the fusion center directors and influential political leaders that finally received attention from DHS and the window was lifted.

The fusion center directors realized that there was strength in unity. In 2009, we formed the National Fusion Center Association (NFCA), which represented the fusion center directors nationally. I was elected the first chairman of the NFCA, but had to step down a few weeks later when Gov. Jim Doyle appointed me as administrator of the Division of Emergency Management.

There are many challenges that still face the fusion center community as a whole. First and foremost is a dedicated funding stream that will ensure the fusion center's continued success. Also important are improving exchanges with the private sector and effective sharing of information and intelligence across state and federal boundaries. Although information sharing has gotten much better in some aspects, there is still room for improvement. The relationships vary from state to state and are often based more on the personal relationships made between people rather than institutional parameters. The DHS has made some incredible strides in the areas of training, program coordination, standards and information sharing. DHS Secretary [Janet] Napolitano has made it clear that fusion centers are a priority in her administration, and there is great hope in the fusion community going forward.

What do you see as opportunities as you begin your role as a state emergency management director?

This position gives me the chance to broaden my vision on emergency response and public service. For 25 years, there’s been a criminal aspect tied to most work activities I was involved in. With the advent of 9/11, homeland security and fusion centers, law enforcement took on a preparedness mindset that historically it hadn’t dealt with.

Having come from the law enforcement world and being a fusion center director, I’ve long appreciated the natural link between fusion centers and the emergency management world. Both of these disciplines are intimately related, but there are few examples of coordinated efforts between the two. I hope to bridge that gap and make Wisconsin a national example of fusion center and emergency management synergy.

Here in Wisconsin, we have extraordinary support from the governor, adjutant general and the attorney general for the fusion center. The WSIC’s parent agency is the Department of Justice, Division of Criminal Investigation and they’re a great partner with emergency management. We’re trying to pursue a combined state [Emergency Operations Center] and fusion center facility at the Department of Military Affairs’ Division of Emergency Management headquarters. We see great value in co-locating our intelligence and emergency management personnel to respond to any disaster.

The WSIC sponsors the threat liaison officer’s training, which teaches first responders, emergency managers, military and private-sector participants in terrorism and critical infrastructure protection. We’ve had several county emergency managers go through the course, and it's received great reviews.

What are your existing programs and staff resources, operating budget?

The division is divided into four operating sections: Planning, Preparedness, Response and Recovery/Mitigation. As with many states, those sections are multifaceted in the activities they’re involved in, like exercises, Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program, training, etc.

We also host the state Emergency Operations Center and the Interagency Working Group. The primary programs that we oversee include: Radiological Emergency Planning, Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), Regional Response Teams, Response Equipment Grants, HazMat Training Grants, State Disaster Recovery Aid, Emergency Management Planning Grants and Petroleum Environmental Cleanup Fund Award. The total of these programs is about $8.5 million. Added to that is our Emergency Management Performance Grant of $5.6 million, of which we pass two-thirds to the local county and tribes.

Do you see any differences between homeland security and emergency management? Are these two areas treated differently in Wisconsin?

Homeland security and emergency management have both been evolving over the last 10 years. When you look at the direction they’re headed, it’s toward each other. Initially homeland security was very terrorist centric and tactically based. Emergency management typically dealt with natural disasters until major man-made events hit our country. Although the terrorist event may start out as a homeland security or law enforcement issue, it invariably ends up as an emergency management responsibility.

Several states have combined their homeland security and emergency management functions into one agency. That’s a trend I agree with because it helps eliminate layers of bureaucracy and interagency issues in a comprehensive and efficient manner.

In Wisconsin, we don’t have a separate homeland security department. We have the Governor’s Homeland Security Council, which advises the governor and top state leaders on all aspects of homeland security. This group represents the state agencies, and the members are appointed by the governor. The state’s homeland security adviser is the adjutant general, and he has the lead with addressing homeland security initiatives for Wisconsin. The Division of Emergency Management is part of the Department of Military Affairs and we work together exceptionally well. As the division administrator, I sit on the Governor’s Homeland Security Council and work daily with the adjutant general, who is one of our biggest advocates. Wisconsin Emergency Management treats homeland security as one of our primary responsibilities since we will always be affected by the events and outcomes.

What role do you see for technology in emergency management, and anything specifically for the use of social media?

I’m naturally averse to piles of paper records and tedious forms to be filled out. One of my first items to be addressed was how to reduce the paperwork shuffle, transfer existing paper data to electronic records, and make as many of our programs Web based as possible. The first programs that this will affect will be EPCRA and our training programs, with others to follow.

As far as social media, we certainly see the impact it’s having nationwide. With three teenagers at home, a day doesn’t go by without a Facebook or Twitter revelation at our house. If we don’t recognize the power of these tools and use them to our advantage, then we’re doomed to historical methods that lose value more every day. Our first responsibility is to get the word out; the tools to do that will always be changing. Be nimble, be quick or be criticized for not doing everything possible.

In Wisconsin we just posted a new position that is for an additional public information officer. Our recruitment information and position description specifically identifies the use of social media as a requirement.

What is your vision for how jurisdictions and disciplines can work more in partnership with one another?

I’m a huge believer in collaboration and cooperation across boundaries. In reading the 9/11 Report, the glaring failures of information silos and independent efforts shouldn’t be forgotten by those of us responsible for dealing with the aftermath. We need to find ways to get around bureaucratic red tape and historical prejudices to make sure we do everything possible, every time.

A good example of making the effort is a cooperative agreement we just completed with our friends in Minnesota, which was agreed to and signed by both of our governors. This agreement allows for the cross-border response by state assets for incidents that don’t reach the level of an Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) declaration.

Do you have any plans to build or expand on regional emergency management initiatives?

There are several areas where I see the possibilities for expanded cooperation and fruitful initiatives. For a start, I’d like to see the recent agreement between Wisconsin and Minnesota expanded across all of our FEMA Region V states. The ability to dedicate assets in the timeliest fashion may not seem important in quiet times, but it sure will when something hits the fan. We need to be able to reach across borders to help each other on issues that don’t necessarily reach EMAC status.

Another area that we’re involved in is the Great Lakes Homeland Security Consortium. This is a new coalition of Great Lake states that is addressing critical infrastructure issues unique to those of us in this region. It’s a great partnership between emergency management, emergency services, various government agencies and the private sector in safeguarding our vital assets. Our adjutant general, Don Dunbar, is the chairman of the consortium.

How do you see the relationship between the state emergency management organization that you lead and that of local emergency management agencies?

One of the things I told my staff when we met together for the first time was that the county and local emergency managers were ultimately going to write our report cards for us. If we fail to meet their needs and expectations, then we will receive a failing grade. I don’t see our role as Big Brother, tyrant or paternal in nature, we’re partners.
[Photo courtesy of Barry Bahler/FEMA.]

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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