Battalion Chief of Virginia Task Force 1 Michael Schaff (HSToday photo)

#RealDeal Interview: Taking the Reins to Respond to Disasters

HSToday Executive Editor Kristina Tanasichuk sat down with Battalion Chief of Virginia Task Force 1 Michael Schaff to discuss the unit’s work responding to recent hurricanes, leadership skills exercised during those responses, and how leaders can improve the timing and efficacy of their response.

Sponsored by the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, Virginia Task Force 1 was established in 1986 as a domestic and international disaster response resource and is rostered by approximately 200 specially trained career and volunteer fire and rescue personnel, with expertise in the rescue of victims from collapsed structures following a natural or man-made catastrophic event. The team is composed of emergency managers and planners, physicians and paramedics, and includes specialists in the fields of structural engineering, heavy rigging, collapse rescue, logistics, hazardous materials, communications, canine and technical search.

HSToday: Talk to us a bit about your year and the difference between the international and domestic response to major disasters.

Chief Schaff: So there’s two different aspects to response – there’s a domestic response portion and then you have the international side, so both sponsored by the United States and funded by the United States but two completely different types of responses. FEMA responds to the domestic – so a lot of hurricanes, a lot of storms. You’re looking at the mudslides and hurricanes, tornadoes during the tornado season, and then the FEMA team supports — the 20 FEMA teams in the U.S. are in the pecking order for the response to those. On the international side, there’s just two teams – so they travel underneath USAID through the State Department to the international side.

HSToday: And is that in coordination with FEMA?

Schaff: No. They’re separate. There are two different funding mechanisms, two different agreement types for responses, but really does do the same job if you will. One just being on the home ground and the other being on somebody else’s turf. But if you look at the way the systems are set up, they are completely two different systems. The international systems are, I believe, a little bit more effective and efficient at what we do. Because we’re a smaller group and the leadership makes decisions quickly and it’s like, “this is how it’s going to be done,” and the coordination’s done a lot quicker. Your response is quicker and your ability to get out and work and have the decision makers at the leadership level is done a lot quicker than how it seems to be done on the domestic side. A lot of that is because of the politics, you know, when you’re dealing with the U.S. you’re dealing with agreements between states and then between jurisdictions and between chiefs…

For an effective response everyone has to be on the same page. You go international and they’re much more receptive about you coming in than, sometimes, on the domestic side. So the decision making is a lot quicker. Your ability to act and to be efficient and to do more good for more people seems to be a little bit more efficient on the international side than you see on the domestic side. And it’s not that both of them don’t do good. They both do. Just two completely different mechanisms that the United States supports.

HSToday: So how many deployments – or what have you been up to this last year?

Schaff: So we’ve done Hurricane Harvey, then we did Irma, then we did Maria. And then we sent people for the Mexico earthquake. And then we did Dominica, through the international side after Maria came through so that’s – you look at the U.S. Virgin Islands; that was done by FEMA. And the same with Dominica; that’s international, so we sent people through that. So busy!

HSToday: Very busy! So what do you think is going on? Do you think we’re seeing more disasters or do you think it’s pretty much on pace with what we’ve seen in the past?

Schaff: I think you’re seeing – I mean, this was definitely an anomaly – I mean, you know, I would hope. You know, you saw Harvey and then there was Irma, then Maria and then the next hurricanes just behind that, so they all line up and to the same trajectory through the islands like that – was something we haven’t seen before. So what’s happening and do we start seeing a string of that, because …whether it’s called global warming, or whether it’s called climate change, who knows. But it definitely seems like we’re having more deployments for that hurricane side over the last couple of years.

HSToday: Do you think that if it continues you all will need more funding?

Schaff: The funding’s always an issue with any agency. You know the funding is sparse and it’s spread out over a wide range of people. There are 28 teams in the United States. Do we need 28 teams in the United States? You know that’s a much higher level than what I decide but, you know, the teams that are in the system – you would hope that those teams that are in the system are deploying at least every couple of years and not sitting on the sideline for 10 years doing nothing. Because if that’s the case, then we should look at reallocating funding to better equip fewer teams that are going more often.

HSToday: And, from your deployment so far, what would you say were your top three leadership tips for others in deploying and responding?

Schaff: I think probably one of the top ones would be decision making – make a decision quickly with good information and then stick to your decision. Decisions in a disaster environment aren’t usually consensus decisions. You need to be able to – if you’ve been tasked with leadership responsibility and a role, you need to be OK with ‘oh, I can make the decision with the information I get by surrounding myself with the right people,’ and then making the decision and going forward and accomplishing the task that you’ve been given or that you’re pushing down. In inability to make a decision or waiting for everyone to come to the same conclusion, it’s going to be really hard to be successful because not everyone is going to come to the same decision, especially in a disaster environment. Everybody has different backgrounds, so to make a decision based off someone who deploys all the time and then you’ve got someone whose never been deployed – it’s a completely different set of eyes when their trying to make those decisions.

So decision making, I think, is the first and foremost at a leadership level. Make that decision, stick to it and go to work. The second one is surround yourself with smart people. You know, I said, that’s the trick. When you get up to leadership positions, I always say it’s not always just because you’re smart but sometimes timing is everything. But when you get up there, there’s a lot of smart people around you with a lot of experience. So surround yourself with those people who can make those smart decisions. Too often I think you get or people get to a leadership position and forget what got them there is the people around them. So surround yourself with those people that have that knowledge to make decisions. I think those are probably the top two.

And thirdly is that you’ve got people that work for you; listen to the people and take care of them and they will work for you. You know, if you’re going to have a leadership position you’re always going to be pushing your orders down and not listening to what they’re saying coming back up, then maybe the orders you’re pushing down isn’t exactly what they need or isn’t what’s going to be effective out in the disaster environment. It’s easy to make a decision if you’re looking at information coming in sitting in a conference room. If you’re not listening to people that are working out in the field with the rescues and doing the surveys and hearing what they need and giving them what they need, then really you’re going to have a disjointed response.

HSToday: Is there an example in the deployments of the last year where something has worked really well or where you have learned something or engaged in a new tactic that has worked really well for the team?

Schaff: Yeah, I think in Hurricane Irma, we saw that worked really well for us. We got deployed for that one as a team and we went down to Georgia to Robins Air Force Base. We were then flown from there to Puerto Rico. A small element from the IST and FEMA – IST leader was Rick Bartee and the Ops Chief was Doug Westhoff  — they were the management structure team coming in. They decided we needed to go to some of the other islands and clear those islands to give a good assessment, to do the rescues …and give good information back to the FEMA administrator and to the government on those islands to make sure of what they needed. It was, as we talked before, Rick and Doug provided great leadership… there was very little micro-management. And it was, you know, what do you need when you get this job and how can we support what you’re doing. And so we did it and, two days later, came back and closed out those islands and were able to report back with ‘this is what the island’s needs are and this is where we’ve been and we’ve touched every part of the island – what’s our next task?’ You know, and that was almost a model for how responses should work.

HSToday: That’s terrific. Is there anything that you saw out there this year that you think could have been done better?

Schaff: You always have to watch. I think, in my opinion, and this is just my opinion, you have to watch that your leadership group doesn’t outnumber the people that are actually victims on the ground. When you have 100 people trying to lead 50 people, it’s going to be difficult because with a hundred ideas it going to be really hard for them to think that they’re not – have better information or better ideas than the people actually on the ground. So I think you have to be really careful when you get into these big disasters – that you don’t let leadership outnumber the people doing the work.

And that’s a difficult task, you know. You have a huge hurricane coming through or huge disaster; everybody wants a piece of the pie. Everyone’s trained for a long time to be involved but I think you have to stop and go – we have enough leadership, we need more boots on the ground and we need more collaboration between those two. So I think that’s always a hard lesson for us to learn whether it’s on the fire side, you know, in the response side, but that is something that I really think is being looked at now after so many responses, that leadership doesn’t outnumber the people on the ground.

HSToday: Too many cooks in the kitchen.

Schaff: Yeah. It makes it really hard for the guys on the ground to get a definitive direction as to what do you really want done when you’ve got four people telling you to do four different things in leadership positions.

HSToday: Are there any legal issues that come up when you’re on a deployment that you think should be fixed?

Schaff: You know, I think … that’s well above our pay grade.

HSToday: But you haven’t had a – when you have to say, oh well, we can’t do that until, you know, the mayor says it’s OK or…

Schaff: No.

HSToday: …Is there anything left which is like that, which kind of is a barrier?

Schaff: I don’t think so. Nothing that’s not worked through. There’s always barriers to everything, there’s always protection. And rightfully so; everyone wants to protect their own environment. You know they’ve got resources and so it’s once those resources are depleted, that’s when they ask for help and the decision making at the local level and whose going to pay for this and allow you to work and who’s got the medical license to work outside of their state. All that stuff’s worked out pretty well on advance and there are continual discussions at that FEMA upper level. Well above our pay grade.

HSToday: Yeah.

Schaff: Ask a task force; I think we’ve seen those things that hampered us.

HSToday: Do you have any message for people who want to help or volunteer?

Schaff: Around deployments, to go and do stuff. There’s lots of NGOs that look for help. The teams, you know, we’re a very small portion of the response – we’re the rescue, and do somewhat of the recovery afterwards, but a very small portion of what we do – the volunteer portion really comes into play once we’re gone. You know, the humanitarian side of distribution of food and water and shelter and those types of recovery efforts are when the volunteers really come into play. So during the crisis itself, it’s really hard to find places where volunteers can find places for rescue work. It’s normally not what people are trained in, but as soon as people are in recovery there’s big need for the church groups or community groups and NGOs which come into play and then run through the rest of the response.

HSToday: So, really, it’s get engaged with an NGO and come in – in a more organized way.

Schaff: Right. The onesies and twosies kind of get lost in the mix.

HSToday: All right; cool. OK. One is kind of dangerous, too, I suppose.

Schaff: Yeah. If you can even get there.

Kristina Tanasichuk is Executive Editor of Homeland Security Today and CEO of the Government Technology & Services Coalition. She founded GTSC to advance communication and collaboration between the public and private sector in defense of our homeland.  A leader in homeland security public private partnership, critical infrastructure protection, cyber security, STEM, innovation, commercialization and much more, she brings to HSToday decades of experience and expertise in the intersection of the public and private sectors in support of our homeland's security. Tanasichuk worked for Chairman Tom Bliley on electric utility restructuring for the House Commerce Committee, represented municipal electric utilities sorting out deregulation, the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C. and ran the largest homeland security conference and trade show in the country. Immediately after 9/11 she represented public works departments In homeland security and emergency management. She is also the president and founder of Women in Homeland Security and served as president of InfraGard of the National Capital Region, a member of the Fairfax County Law Enforcement Foundation, the U.S. Coast Guard Enlisted Memorial Foundation and on the Board of USCG Mutual Assistance. She has an MPA from George Mason University and has attended the FBI and DEA Citizens Academies and the Marine Corps Executive Leadership Program. Most recently she was awarded the "Above & Beyond Award" by the Intelligence & Law Enforcement Training Seminar (INLETS) and was awarded Small Business Person of the Year by AFCEA International. Tanasichuk brings a new vision and in-depth knowledge of the federal homeland and national security apparatus to the media platform.

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