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Interview: A Next-Generation Emergency Manager

Jay Hagen, emergency preparedness officer of the Seattle Fire Department, discusses education, maritime security and the homeland security/emergency management relationship.

Fire/Crisis Media Revolution/Photo copyright iStockphoto
Photo copyright iStockphoto
Photo copyright iStockphoto
We are embarking on a transition from the current emergency management leaders to a new generation of emergency management professionals, who will take the profession to a new level. This next generation will more than likely be a more diverse group of people, who come from a broader set of backgrounds. Many will have formal education in emergency management.

One such potential leader is Jay Hagen, who serves as the Seattle Fire Department's emergency preparedness officer. I posed a series of questions to Hagen and asked him to respond in writing. See how you measure up to his training and experience.

Tell me a little bit about your professional background.

I am a career firefighter holding the rank of captain. I have 25 years of experience, 21 with the Seattle Fire Department. I hope to get the opportunity to serve as a battalion chief soon. I enjoy the team atmosphere and problem-solving challenges that the fire service provides, and I am proud to wear the uniform patches on my shoulders. I have been working on homeland security and emergency preparedness issues for the last three years. I feel lucky to have a job that I enjoy going to every day.

How did you come to be involved in emergency management and homeland security?

I was a student at the University of Montana and working for the Missoula Fire Department in 1988 when I chose to leave school to continue my fire service career in Seattle. I left college in the spring quarter of my senior year. Not earning the degree plagued me, and I returned to school at age 40 and completed my bachelor’s degree. I learned that being a college student at 40 was a much different experience than at 20. I was able to engage the schoolwork more and found it very relevant to the challenges I was facing at work. Completing that undergraduate degree reignited my interest in education and I started shopping around for graduate school programs in the Seattle area. In 2003, I learned about the Homeland Security Master of Arts Program at Naval Post-Graduate School in Monterey, [Calif.]. I was accepted into that program in 2004, and threw myself into it.

How would you describe your experience in attending the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey and earning a Master of Arts degree in homeland security and defense?

The graduate school experience for me was life changing and a hugely positive experience. I think I was ripe for the opportunity as a mid-career public safety professional interested in career advancement and having a larger influence in my organization and professional community. Being exposed to, and influenced by, the staff and professors, my classmates and the learning environment they created for us, really worked for me. We learned about the homeland security enterprise, strategy and policy development, critical thinking, strategic planning and terrorism. It was a very challenging program in terms of time, energy and commitment but well worth the effort. The benefits in professional networking alone were worth the investment. I could tell after the first six months in the program that my critical thinking and writing skills had noticeably improved. I highly recommend the program. Anyone interested can check it out at

You served a one-year assignment as a senior research fellow at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office of Grants and Training. What impressions of the DHS did you come way with from that experience?

I spent a year working at the DHS Office of Grants and Training (2006-07) and was immediately impressed by the quality of the people working there. I found them to be young, energetic, hard working, and really committed to making a positive impact by serving their country and supporting the nation’s first responders. Generally these were highly motivated, highly educated young people who could have been making bigger salaries in the private sector.

I think they appreciated having a first responder “practitioner” in their midst; someone to help them interpret the net value of the grants, training programs, exercises and projects they were putting on the street. I spent most of the year traveling across the country with them and learning how they administer national programs. It was really interesting to get a peek behind the “DHS curtain.” I was also able to provide them with some honest and unbiased feedback about the challenges and obstacles that the nation’s first responders face when trying to negotiate myriad federal requirements.

Ever since the inception of homeland security there has been a debate as to the relationship of emergency management and homeland security. How do you personally view that relationship?

I think there is a natural and necessary tension between homeland security traditionalists (borne from the justice/law enforcement/military mindset) and emergency managers that believe future actions and investments should be driven by vulnerability analyses — things that will predictably happen in our communities. This does not make complete sense to traditionalists who argue that homeland security exists solely because of the arrival of terrorism in the United States. They advocate that terrorism, in several forms, is the core reason for homeland security. Whether you affiliate yourself more as a law enforcer or a sandbag stuffer, we seem to have settled on the utility of the “all-hazards” approach, which seems to allow us to prepare for most eventualities.

If you were the DHS secretary and could wave your magic wand, to what high priority areas would you direct funding?

I think we have made significant progress in preparedness but I would advocate for the following:

  • My top priority would be to restructure grant guidance and oversight to remove currently existing barriers and challenges that hinder state and local responders from using the funds to make progress.
  • As public interest in homeland security wanes the further we get from 9/11, I would move more aggressively toward implementing a truly risk-based approach and fund prevention, protection and response-based programs in our densely populated areas. Grants have a political component, but I think the days of spreading funds like peanut butter across the nation are gone. We have to prioritize projects by need and make risk-based allocation decisions in these tight economic times.
  • I would use the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regions more effectively. I would urge the nation’s fusion centers to take the next logical step and integrate non-law enforcement disciplines in the information-sharing process. Fire service participation in fusion centers will be integral to their future success if we intend them to be “all-hazards” information sharing systems.
  • We have to develop and maintain a robust response capability. I think the public demands that of us. I agree that if we can prevent the bad things from happening, there will be no need to respond. However, first responders know that it is incumbent on us to be ready to serve the public quickly and professionally when necessary. The potential to prevent terrorism exists and we should invest in prevention. However, we also face challenges from no-notice events like natural disasters. Since we can’t prevent an earthquake, we must be ready to respond to it.

You are chair of the Critical Infrastructure Committee that is a subcommittee to the Sector Seattle Area Maritime Security Committee. What are the challenging aspects of maritime security?

The marine environment is challenging for responders for several reasons: the equipment is expensive, the training requirements are technical and specialized, and waterborne operations are inherently more dangerous due to wind, weather, travel time and unstable operational platforms. Yet the nature of the country’s maritime activities — large volume marine-based tourism, extensive marine transportation systems, and economically and socially critical port operations — make it highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Unfortunately there are simply not enough marine public-sector safety assets to meet the demand and that precipitates the crucial need for working partnerships with the private sector.

You are still a professional firefighter, and you hope, someday soon a battalion chief. How do you see your education and practical work experience in homeland security assisting you in your fire career?

My training has prepared me to apply strategic thinking and problem solving to the myriad issues confronting the public safety community at both the operational and policy levels. I recently returned to the Operations Division for a few months to serve as an acting battalion chief. The experience reminded me how much I enjoy working with crews on emergency alarms and being out in the community. But I also saw how my training has helped prepare me to transition into the roles of teacher, coach and leader that come with being a battalion chief and incident commander. My homeland security training has helped me think more strategically about field operations and how this fits into the big picture.

I was recently reassigned to administration as the emergency preparedness officer and now work on the 15 to 20 grant programs that we participate in, doing emergency management and liaison work, and representing the Seattle Fire Department at the local, regional, state and national level. I realize how fortunate I am that my department has had the foresight to support me and make an investment of time and dollars in my career development. I also know that the training and experience I’ve had will directly benefit the work I continue to do in the department and throughout my fire career.

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

This past summer I spent a half-hour with FEMA Administrator [Craig] Fugate and his command staff at FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C. I was there on behalf of the Interagency Board (IAB) along with Chief A.D. Vickery from Seattle Fire and Jamie Turner, the state administrative agent from Delaware. We were there to seek FEMA support for the IAB, and Fugate got right to the point. He expressed his immediate concerns to us and tasked us with forming recommendations on several timely issues.

His immediate concerns included radiological/nuclear response capability and infectious disease planning. During that meeting, I couldn’t help but wonder how many circumstances had to line up for me to find myself sitting across from the FEMA director, being engaged in answering pointed and direct questions from him, in the presence of my boss and his staff. I felt privileged to be there. Emergency managers routinely face many significant challenges. Being part of a far-reaching team of qualified professionals that work together across disciplines to confront problems is worthy of our commitment and support.

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