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Bryan Koon Brings Extensive Private-Sector Experience to Florida

Koon went from managing disasters that affected Wal-Mart’s 2.2 million employees to heading emergency management for Florida.

Bryan Koon was named director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management in 2010. He joined the division after years as the senior operations manager in Wal-Mart’s Emergency Management Department.

At Wal-Mart, he managed events that affected the 2.2 million associates at the company’s facilities and nearly 100,000 vendors and suppliers throughout the world. Koon was a surface warfare officer in the Navy and worked at the White House Military Office for seven years.

Emergency Management magazine caught up with Koon at a recent conference to discuss his experience and the transition from the private sector to the public sector. 

Question: What’s it like following in the footsteps of FEMA Administrator and former Director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management Craig Fugate?

Answer: It’s daunting but frankly it’s a tremendous opportunity and that was one of the primary reasons I took the job in Florida. It was an opportunity to go to a state that already had a fantastic reputation. It’s daunting to follow Craig. He has reached the place where he’s known by one name like Bono or Prince — it’s just “Craig.” But far surpassing that, is the ability to learn from the organization and to take what has been a great success so far and make it even better.

Are there things you’d like to do differently than Fugate?

We still have lots to improve upon, so we are working on numerous things. One is taking the effectiveness that was achieved and continuing on with [it], but improving the efficiency of it. Recognizing that the financial climate we’ll be dealing with in the next 10 years is going to be tough.
How do emergency management organizations or a state achieve the same results or better with less money and more streamlined efforts?

Continuing to engage the “whole community,” to use FEMA’s language, in emergency management and recognizing that in those large-scale situations, it is not government-centric and it should not be a government-centric focus. Everybody in the community should be engaged in that process.
We’re taking a much more proactive effort to engage the academic community, which is a vastly underutilized resource in Florida. We have great colleges and universities that have lots of emergency management and homeland security programs, and many bright, young students that want to be engaged. There are lots of internship and research opportunities. Colleges have physical infrastructure that could be of use to us. They have some of the best communication systems as far as alerting notification. Engaging the academic community more fully is something we are working on.

The challenge in Florida is that we can’t be all Facebook all the time because we have an elderly population that relies on local TV news; their neighbors in the condo and their bridge club; and their land line phone. We have to make sure we continue to serve that population while taking advantage of all the new technology.

What do you bring from the private sector to government that was missing?

There are a number of things. One of them is because I came from outside of government, it has allowed me to ask the dumb questions that I would perhaps be afraid to ask otherwise. I can ask people to explain how we got where we are today and why. It seems so convoluted. Explain to me how it is not convoluted, or in fact if it is convoluted, why we got there.

I can ask how we got to the point where this county is doing this and the county next door is doing something completely different. In some cases, I have gotten good answers, and in some cases I have gotten, “because that is the way that it always has been done.” It has allowed me to truly engage people and allow them the opportunity to explain how things work and either defend it or clearly illustrate that it’s something we can approve upon.

I am a public communicator and the public-facing part of the organization. I’m the negotiator; I’m a manager; I’m a leader; a counselor; an adviser; a sounding board; I am a collaborator; the guy who nags somebody else on behalf of the organization. I’m the one who moves issues up and down. Those are skills that you can acquire outside of government. In fact, you can probably get better at doing those kinds of things in the private sector. Those are the skill sets I brought to the job that I would not necessarily have honed as well had I been in government the entire time.

I’m truly glad I did Wal-Mart first because they are very focused on a brand, an image and reputation, so I did a lot of media relations-type classes where you spent days going through mock interviews and going over the message to make sure you were reflecting credit upon the company. I haven’t seen that kind of training occur within the state so I would have been ill-prepared had I come up through the ranks.

Having come from the private sector, is one of your goals to facilitate better communication between the private and public sector?

Yes, it should be irrespective of individual. Relationships are very important in this business, but it has to go deeper than that. One of the first things that I did was hire a dedicated full-time private-sector coordinator for the agency. I have one person solely focused on understanding the needs of the private sector and ensuring that we as an agency are moving forward in the direction to incorporate those needs into what we’re doing.

It has to be fully integrated in everything we do so that we know where all the resources are before a situation. All I want to do as a governmental emergency management agency is fill in the gaps, I don’t want to overlap with something else because no matter how efficient we become as an organization, we will always be more expensive than the alternative.

We [also] have to understand big-picture implications. You may implement a curfew in a town, and say something happens after that 6 p.m. curfew — and that is understandable from a security perspective — but we have to understand big-picture-wise how that will impact us because now you can’t get trucks in there to stock store shelves. So the next morning when it is light, there’s nothing on the shelves for people to go and buy. Now you as a government agency have to provide food and water for those people, so adding a little bit of extra security in that 12 hours has now cost you $250,000 in food and water for that one additional day.

One [lesson] that came out of Irene: They were using helicopters to get water to folks after bridges went out. Do you have any idea how expensive that water becomes if you’re using an $8,000-an-hour Black Hawk to bring a pallet of water to somebody? That is now a $40 gallon of water that you provided to that person.

We treat preparedness money and recovery money separately sometimes, but we really have to start tying that stuff together.

You’re sitting in the nation’s hurricane capital. What are your biggest challenges in preparing folks to deal with hurricanes?

There are several. Every day since the last hurricane is that much further removed from people’s minds from how bad a hurricane can be. It reinforces the fallacy that some may have in parts of the state that some kind of protective geographic feature where they live prevents them from being impacted by a hurricane. The fact is that anywhere in the state can be impacted by a hurricane, but the longer you go without having one, the more people forget about it, so overcoming that complacency in a continually growing state [is a challenge]. We have new citizens who have moved in since the last hurricane, and they have no understanding of it and how they work.

There also is turnover in emergency management personnel, so the further you are removed from the last hurricane, the further you are from an experienced emergency manager who has dealt with those issues before. The same things with politicians, business owners and such. You risk repeating the mistakes of the past.

You mentioned the elderly population. Is it difficult to reach sometimes?

I wouldn’t characterize them as that. I would say every group, every person in Florida has a different way in which they receive information, and none of that is either good or bad — it is simply something that we need to understand as emergency managers. We have to utilize the proper channel to reach that person. There are very few people in Florida who have no means of external communication whatsoever.

Do I go through TV ads or an electronic billboard? Do I talk to a civic organization or through the bridge club? Do I go to the churches or do a Facebook or Twitter page? Do I do direct mail or lots of press releases? The answer is yes, I do all of that.

The other thing is recognizing that government doesn’t know how best to reach all of those individuals. The media does, other groups in the state do, so we provide that standard official message and then engage those partners to help reach all of those people. It’s not my job to try to reach 19 million Floridians. I need to hit those sources that can help me hit 19 million Floridians.
I don’t think that anyone is stubborn or difficult to reach. I think that we recognize that everybody does it differently. If you read the report from the National Weather Service on the Joplin [, Mo.,] tornadoes and you read anything out of the Natural Hazards Center in Boulder, Colo., you find that people like to have multiple sources of information before they act. They want to go to their trusted sources to validate their information. Again, we have to recognize that and know that no single thing is going to get the response we desire. We have to tie it into all of those different ways to reach the people who need to be reached.


Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management magazine.