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Fire service experience bridges the much needed FEMA leadership

FEMA leadership has worked hard for the fire service industry
FEMA officials have heralded a new era to bridge experience and fire service

One of the biggest things people wanted was better opportunities for training and how to expand their role within FEMA.

For close to a year now, FEMA has firmly had its finger on the pulse of the fire service. In what is believed to be a first for the agency, four senate-appointed positions are held by former first responders.

"It's been rare that in the FEMA leadership you have people (with experience in emergency services) serving at the same time," FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said. "We tend to look at things more in terms of outcome based and the standpoint of what it was like to be in the field. "We have a better appreciation for what the first responders go through. Hopefully (our experience) adds a sense of credibility."

The transformation began in May 2009 when Fugate was confirmed. He previously served as the Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management since 2001. Early on in his career he was a volunteer firefighter, a paramedic and a lieutenant with Alachua County, Fla. Fire Rescue. The same month Fugate joined the agency, Tim Manning was confirmed as the Deputy Administrator for Protection and National Preparedness. He previously served as Secretary of the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and served as a firefighter, EMT, rescue mountaineer and HAZMAT specialist during his career.

"Tim and I both served as emergency managers and had been doing this for such a long time," Fugate said in a recent interview. "We knew a lot of folks and we knew the issues. It helps when you can talk the talk and walk the walk." Another first responder joined FEMA's ranks in October of 2009 as Richard Serino began serving as its Deputy Administrator. He was best known as the Chief of Boston EMS and served with the department for more than 35 years.

This past March, FEMA added one more responder as Elizabeth M. Harman was confirmed as Assistant Administrator of the Grant Programs Directorate. She came to the agency from the IAFF and previously served as a volunteer firefighter in Prince George's County, Md. and as a career firefighter in Fairfax, Va.

FEMA is determined to serve the country by providing best in safety and recovery measures for disaster hit people

"I never became a firefighter to write grants; but I'm fortunate that I've always been able to keep fire and EMS as part of my job," she said. Harman said that the group brings something different to the table that FEMA hasn't seen in past administrations. "I think it was a wise move and a breath of fresh air to be able to sit in a meeting and not have to explain what's going on. You don't find a lot of resistance to the change that is needed. We know what is needed."

Serino said that during his long career in Boston, he really got a sense for how things worked. From working a Democratic National Convention and responding to numerous high-rise fires and shootings, he saw it all. "I think those experiences prepare you to look at how things get done and actually happen on the local level," he said. "I think having that experience makes a big difference in how you approach things." During Serino's first few months with the agency, he reached out to the FEMA employees across the country to get their take on what could be done differently.

"One of the biggest things people wanted was better opportunities for training and how to expand their role within FEMA," he said, noting that a plan was made to spend close to $3 million on training in regions throughout the nation. "When I go back to visit, many of them are so appreciative for that."

Manning, whose responsibility focuses on the nation's capability to respond to terrorist attacks and natural disasters, says he misses being on the street but finds his new job just as fulfilling.

"We really have the ability to touch the entire country. We make decisions that could save lives and help make responders' jobs easier," he said.

"I would like to think we've had a big affect on the agency since we've been here and I've seen a shift. We've brought a focus and understanding for what it's like to pull up on an emergency. We've lived it and really understand it." 

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