Hurricane Matthew: Passing the Baton

For those of us who live in Florida, impending weather disasters cause extreme stress as we anxiously go through our own mental checklists.

Is my home protected?  Are family members vulnerable to harm, and what can I do to mitigate the threats?   Have we prepared for what comes next?

Am I up to the test?

During the approach of major Hurricane Matthew – at one point a Category 4 monster with the potential for catastrophic destruction and extreme loss of life – I had a conversation with a fellow retired law enforcement colleague who noted that this was the day we had trained for our entire lives.

He was right.

For as long as I can remember I have been involved in public safety.

As a young boy I joined the Police Explorer’s, a wonderful values-based program that imparts the important traditions of the police service – honor, integrity and dedication – to impressionable young people.  It also allows an all-important personal interaction between law enforcement officers and kids in the community as they teach basic skills such as traffic stops, crime scene investigation, criminal law, and emergency first aid measures.

I suppose this program was the genesis of a career that would last over 33 years now.

At 19 years old, I enlisted in the United States Army Reserve and completed basic training and Military Police School at Fort McClellan, Alabama – the beautifully set, but controversial former home of the Army’s chemical warfare school – and current home to what is believed to be one of the largest concentration of environmental contamination in the country.

In my view, the United States Army’s Military Police School provides the finest basic law enforcement training in the world.  Those who graduate from this physically and mentally demanding course leave with a variety of skills, but the one thing they can do better than anyone else is traffic direction and control.

Countless hours are devoted to imparting the art, skill and logistics of moving large volumes of vehicular traffic by hand.  An MP buck private with a brass whistle and a pair of white cotton gloves can take over any intersection in the world and move traffic more effectively and efficiently than any computerized signaling system known to man.

At age 22, I was sponsored to attend Basic Law Enforcement Recruit Training at Daytona Beach Community College and subsequently hired as a sworn officer by the Holly Hill Police Department.

As my career progressed, I was promoted through the ranks to positions of increasing responsibility and I have hundreds of interesting “war stories” and funny anecdotes that get taller and more fabulous with each telling.

With each assignment, I realized that beyond protecting and serving a community, the real work of a law enforcement agency is crisis management.  We show up on the worst day of your life and try, in some small way, to make things better.

That’s an extremely tall task – and because most of the ‘problem solving’ arrows in our quiver consist of taking someone to jail – we’re often misunderstood, if not openly maligned.

In August 1992, I was deployed to South Florida under state mutual aid agreements in support of recovery efforts in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Andrew.  I led a group of five officers assigned to the Liberty City area of Northwest Dade County.

It was during this important work that I first became interested in the command and control strategies of emergency management operations – a fascinating and highly dynamic function that combines a variety of skills across the public safety spectrum.

In 1996, I was accepted to the prestigious Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Academy at Quantico, Virginia.  The National Academy prides itself on admitting only the top one-half of one percent of law enforcement officers internationally by nomination.

How I was accepted to this elite program can only be explained as a clerical error – regardless, it remains a mystery.

The National Academy allowed me to work and train with colleagues from around the world on issues of great importance.  The closer we became, the clearer it was that police officers the world over face essentially the same basic issues. (Through a foreign colleague, I also learned that the enhanced interrogation techniques used on suspected kidnappers in the Philippines are very different than those we employ in the United States. . .)

Later in my career I was fortunate to attend the Department of Homeland Security/FEMA National Emergency Training Center at Emmetsburg, Maryland.  An extraordinary campus located near beautiful Catoctin Mountain and the Presidential Retreat at Camp David.

This incredibly advanced training environment provides first responders, emergency managers, elected officials and tribal governments the opportunity to learn and exercise state-of-the-art disaster management and response techniques.

I continued to study the emergency management discipline and ultimately earned the FEMA Advanced Career Development Certificate through the Emergency Management Institute.

Studying techniques in a controlled environment is one thing – putting them to practical use is something else.

I had the opportunity to respond to a variety of natural disasters over the years, including the 1998 Florida Fire Storms; then responsibility for commanding law enforcement operations during the 2004 Atlantic Hurricane Season, which resulted in three Presidential disaster declarations in two months.

I also had the great honor of serving as Chairman of the Volusia/Flagler Police Chief’s Associations Standardized Emergency Management Protocol Committee for multi-jurisdictional incident command.

During the City of Holly Hill’s response to unprecedented flooding in May 2009 – a disaster that resulted in yet another Presidential disaster declaration – I was assigned as Incident Commander with additional responsibility for logistical planning and operational support for a regional FEMA Disaster Recovery Center.

Later, I was appointed as Chief of Police and also served as the City’s Emergency Management Coordinator with responsibility for the development and maintenance of response, contingency, and continuity of operations plans and the strategic command and control of emergency response and recovery operations.

Based upon this training and operational experience, I became eligible for the Florida Professional Emergency Manager designation through the Florida Emergency Preparedness Association – a title that requires compilation of an exhaustive peer-reviewed training and operational portfolio.

The point of this weird resume review is to show you that the City of Holly Hill spent a ton of time and money to provide me with a solid base of knowledge to best serve the citizens of my community during mass threats to their safety.

I never forgot that – and I never will.

Although I retired as Chief of Police in the spring of 2014, I was very honored to remain active with the agency as a Reserve Police Officer, a sworn position that requires I maintain the same training and certifications as all full-time personnel.

So, when a Category 4 buzz saw was barreling down on the community that provided me with literally everything I have, or ever will have, I knew where I would be for the duration of the storm.

I wanted desperately for everyone to be safe.  I wanted the community to survive what could have been a devastating blow to life and property – and most of all, I wanted to know that the team I left behind when I retired was up to the task of serving and protecting during the worst-of-the-worst.

During the response to Hurricane Matthew, I was honored to serve in the field providing operational support and law enforcement services before, during, and immediately after the storm.

I learned a lot about myself – mostly that I’m not a young officer anymore, in more ways than one.

But the most important thing I learned is that when they were tested to the maximum – the very imminent threat of a major Category 3 hurricane less than 100 miles away – the administration and staff of the City of Holly Hill performed with incredible dedication and perseverance to provide second-to-none emergency response and recovery operations.

Anytime you relinquish control of something you care deeply about, you have a lingering worry that perhaps the “new” person in charge won’t pay as much attention as you did.

Those fears were immediately and forever purged from my mind when I observed the incredible leadership and stability under pressure demonstrated by Holly Hill Police Chief Stephen Aldrich, Deputy Chief Jeffrey Miller, Lieutenant Chris Yates, and Fire Chief James Bland.

They conducted themselves as true professionals and provided outstanding command and control of emergency operations during dangerous and difficult conditions.

Most important, the courageous first responders of the Holly Hill Police and Fire Department put themselves in harm’s way, staying out in the elements responding to calls for service far beyond what was safe.  They are incredibly inspiring and remain my personal heroes.

In addition, the unsung crews of the Public Works Department were at their very best, and quite literally prevented catastrophe on several occasions under the expert guidance of Director Mark Juliano.

I also want to mention the extraordinary leadership of City Manager Joe Forte – a former fire chief who so adroitly handled the comprehensive management of both city government and emergency operations with such incredible precision and professionalism.

To say that I am proud of Mr. Forte’s contributions to the community is an understatement, and I am so blessed to call him my friend.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that somewhere during 32-sleepless hours of working with these professionals among the howling wind, destruction and torrential rain, I was finally able to mentally pass the baton – to stop worrying – and come to the realization that the young men and women I left in charge when I retired are more capable, adept and mentally equipped than I ever was.

These fine men and women more than passed the ultimate test – and they have earned my enduring respect and admiration.

I cannot tell you how proud I am of these incredible professionals.

God bless all first responders, and those who serve in the center of the maelstrom every day to ensure that others may live.

 

Photo Credit: The Daytona Beach News-Journal

 

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