The emergency management community is a unique lot. While there are certainly members of it who are very public figures, the overwhelming majority of its members go about their jobs with little to no public fanfare. They plan, prepare and partner with any number of different people for any number of scenarios that could keep Hollywood screenwriters busy for their entire careers. While those blockbuster scenarios may be an exciting watch at a movie theater, in real life any of those disaster conditions are incredibly complex and challenging. And it’s not just the cause or conditions that makes those emergencies and disasters complex or challenging – it’s most often all of the people who end up involved with them.
In the midst of what at first can be chaos in an unfolding emergency situation, there does come about an order, a process, a direction that is to be followed that helps get things together. Out of that order, process and direction lives are saved, misery is addressed, help is provided, and positive difference is made. Fortunately for us there are a number of noted national and international practitioners of these skills, but in the post-9/11 homeland security era there are few, if any, leaders who have had the impact or legacy shadow that Donald “Doc” Lumpkins possessed in creating a better prepared homeland.
I’m sad to say that Doc (as he was called by everyone) passed away on the evening of Jan. 26 following a brief illness.
It would be an understatement to simply call Doc Lumpkins an emergency manager. He was far more than that. And it would certainly shortchange all of what he did for a community that embraced him as a “legend,” whether he realized it or not. Maybe it was his short, sly smile; the reserved look at what was going on around him; or just the fact he often let other people speak before he would open his own mouth to share his observations.
Doc was one of those few people who could bring very different people together, regardless of who they were or what their goals were. He was a convener, a conductor of people who could get them all together in a room or on the phone to begin working problems so things could get better for everyone, and not just the loudest complainer(s) in the room.
That may sound simple. But it’s not.
In fact, being able to do that type of convening and connecting of people in the worst of circumstances is a gift. It’s an almost abstract art form that most people will never understand or appreciate for how intricate and special it really is. But Doc’s gifts for collaboration, plain-speak and relationship-building were not anything he was selfish about, or just brought about on occasions when an emergency was unfolding. Rather, they were the gifts he freely shared without any hesitation with anyone who was ready, willing and able to accept them and willing to put them to good use.
It was something that Tim Beres observed firsthand when he hired Doc in the early days of DHS as part of the then Office of Domestic Preparedness (ODP). “Doc brought a state perspective to our office and was always advising me about how our program guidance would impact state government – he was a forward and innovative thinker who always thought of the field and what could help them in their jobs and the public they served,” he said.
Tracey Trautman was another of Doc’s ODP colleagues in the early days of DHS. She shared that Doc was a big part of “the success of this fledging office (with a large appropriation and a big mission) that was transitioning out of DOJ into DHS.”
When he joined the office in 2004, Doc was already “well-known in the emergency management discipline and brought such a strong sense of the importance of the state, local and federal partnership. He was always the guy who could explain a complex issue but then relieve any tension in the room by making everyone laugh!”
Trautman added, “Doc wasn’t a man to waste any time – he was commuting from Baltimore to D.C. every day for work, going to law school at night, and was also legendary on the karaoke circuit!”
Tom Lockwood worked with Doc both at the Maryland Emergency Management Agency and later at DHS. “During that time, I saw him grow from a young man, really enthusiastic about his profession, rise through MEMA, taking law classes at night, [then] moving on to DHS/FEMA and come home to Maryland EMA,” he said.
C.J. Couch another former colleague of Doc’s at FEMA, shared, “I remember listening to his emergency management planning and preparedness insights. He always had a gift in his ability to break down federal jargon and requirements into everyman terms.”
Those are just the types of skills and gifts you want someone to have if they’ve been tasked with shaping the National Incident Management System (NIMS), or running the National Integration Center or National Exercise Program, all of which he did at FEMA for several years.
When Doc died, he was serving as the Chief Financial Officer/Deputy Director of Mission Support for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency – a position certainly of note, trust and importance, but he was so much more than any singular title or stovepiped job classification.
As one of his friends told me when I was writing this piece, “Doc was a giant with the most gentle of souls.”
Doc certainly had career success and the deep respect of anyone who ever worked with him. But he also had his share of fans for his memorable karaoke appearances which only made his legendary status even BIGGER! For as often as an emergency manager might find him/herself holding a microphone to address a crowd over what was unfolding in a disaster, Doc Lumpkins was probably the only emergency manager in the world with enough confidence to sing before them if the music was cued up just right. No future meeting of the emergency management community that ever has an after-hours karaoke contest will occur without someone raising a glass (or several) to Don’s memory and the fun and humor he put on display for everyone to enjoy.
Which is why his passing really strikes a blow to the community of which he had been a part for so long. Doc had just gotten married this past November and finding that love and a new life to share only gave the curve of his smile and twinkle in his eye an even bigger glow. But as sad as it is not having his physical presence, or his counsel on ways to work together in the worst of conditions, it is the example he left for everyone in the emergency management community to follow that will be his biggest legacy. It is in many ways like Doc himself – a shadow of comfort that wraps around you and says, “we’ll get through this together.”
Doc Lumpkins lived the most honorable of lives. He was a public servant who truly cared about protecting that people he sworn to serve. As FEMA Region III Administrator MaryAnn Tierney shared, “His passing deprives the emergency management community of a man with a sharp mind who had much more to give. He was taken much too soon from this Earth.”
All of that is true and Doc’s path did end far too soon, but in writing this piece I found a quote posted by on Doc on his personal Facebook page from British author Douglas Adams that seems to speak volumes about him and a moment like this.
Doc’s life and example are part of the fabric of our homeland and he did end up where he needed to be – coaching and teaching us how we could all work together so that others could be looked out for on the worst of days – whenever and however they may occur.
I can think of no higher honor or praise to say about a person than to say they led a life that made a difference. And they ended up where they were needed most.
That’s where Doc Lumpkins ended up – and the homeland is all the better for it.