Thursday, December 26, 2013

Home for the Holidays

Well, it has been a while since I posted on here.  I am back from Denver.  After about 2 months there, it was back home to the DC area.  This was nice because we got to spend the holidays with our families.  As of the first of the year, we are back on constant standby for any event that may occur.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Mile High Disaster

On September 11, Colorado had "historic" flooding north of the Denver area.  While the West IMAT team took the initial response, they had been in Denver for 40+ days.  FEMA Leadership thought it would be nice to switch things up, so they switched teams!  We arrived in Denver yesterday and are set to be here 30 to 60 days.  I believe they plan to have us close down the JFO (Joint Field Office) here when we leave.  If not, we could play tag again and switch out once again.  Today I got to head up to the flood area to scope out a new office location as well as visit an existing one.  I hope to get into some more of the damage zone again.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

And we are home again

After showing up at the Florida State EOC this morning, Karen was declared officially not a threat and we were told to go right home.  So back to the hotel, book flights, pack, and get to the airport.  And 12 hours later, we are all back in DC.  Hence the grind.  Let's hope something else picks up soon so we can head out again.  Here's a picture from lunch today, looking for Karen.  I call it good situational awareness!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Karen... you fickle woman.... err, storm

Well, we all arrived in Florida last night.  TS Karen was still moving north but weakening ever so slightly.  This morning our whole team went to the Florida State Emergency Operations Center.  We worked out of their offices today as we watched the storm continue to weaken and even stall almost as it was getting closer.  At this point, it will not hit our area here now until Monday, or beyond.  And by then, it may be down to just a remnant.  But we are here, ready to serve the people of the State of Florida if and when they need us.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Florida bound!

Well, we just got our first official deployment!  We are off to Florida in anticipation of Tropical Storm Karen.  More to come soon!!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Headed home

Well, it's been a couple of more weeks here. First we headed from Jefferson City to Kansas City. After a couple days of meetings there and then off to Wichita. There we spent a couple days looking for office space for a field office. The hope was that we would be setting up that office this week. However the state delayed some of their paperwork so nothing will be approved until after the first of the month. So we boarded our plane and came back to DC.  The West coast team was called to Colorado, so we are up next for any event anywhere.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Still in Missouri

We are moving into week 3 here at the JFO in Jefferson City.  So far the IT work has been good.  I have been learning a ton about the processes and methods they follow here.  I have gotten a few things signed off on but will hopefully get a lot more this week.  Tuesday I am going to be teaching two iPad classes, similar to the ones I taught down in Anniston.  Wednesday I am hoping to attend the C&G Staff meeting, as that is another one of my checks.  And Friday I am teaching a Weather Basics for FEMA employees.  I put this together for the IMAT Academy but we never had time to get to it.  So I get to test run the class here and see how it goes!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

My First Deployment!

While we are still in the process of getting settled in Washington, DC, a wonderful "learning" opportunity presented itself.  With the recent flooding in Missouri, a JFO (Joint Field Office) was established in the capital of Jefferson City.  In order to work on getting all of our qualification PTB (Position Task Books) signed off, a select group of eight of us were sent here, including me!  My PTB includes 111 skills, tasks, and events that I must complete under supervision to prove I can do my job - the ultimate practical exam!

On Tuesday I flew to St. Louis and then drove over to Jefferson City.  Today was my first day at FEMA DR 4130 MO.  With lots of meetings and a long check in process, its time to get down to work.  Tomorrow we are traveling 5 hours away to evaluate a new remote office location for IT and Communication needs.  More to come as this progresses!

Bonus:  There is a strong storm brewing out near Africa that looks like it will affect the US.  We are maybe 5 days away from going out, to get there 120 hours pre-landfall.

Dash to Nashville?

Last Friday was suppose to be the first day I started my new working late schedule (9:00 to 5:30) in the office. Alas that would have to wait. At 6 a.m. my phone went off with the wonderful klaxon alarm. That ring tone is set aside for just one number: the ENS. ENS is our Emergency Notification System that alerts us to all things of a critical nature. This ENS notice told us to report to the office by 8 a.m. and be in Nashville by 8 p.m. that night.  So I jump in the shower, grab some breakfast, and get to the office at 6:45. We start loading up all of our gear including our portable satellite system, the GATR.

We have a briefing at 8:00 and they inform us we will not actually be traveling all the way to Nashville. Instead, we are driving down to the local grocery store, rally there, and return to the office. Once back home, we have to set up an office and start working using nothing but power at our existing offices.  I set up three redundant layers of satellite communications (GATR above, BGAN left, and Iridium below), just to prove we are self sufficient.  They reviewed all of our equipment and made sure everyone had everything they should need, right down to our clothes.  Luckily, they did not count our underwear (this time).

Finally, at noon, they told us we passed (for the most part) and that we could take everything down.  We packed everything up, put the stuff away, and then took off for the weekend.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Made it to DC

Well, I did it.  I made the trek out to DC.  Following our training, I was able go home to Minnesota for just over a week.  I got to hang out with all my friends there and get stuff packed up to come out to DC.  Rather, I have been informed I have moved to DMV (DC/Maryland/Virginia area) or NoVA (Northern Virginia).  If I say DC, apparently that just means DC proper.  When I told my landlord I was working in DC she said I didn't want to rent from her because it was too far away.  Once I explained it was only about 10 miles, she was much relieved.

So after that brief time in Minnesota, it was a two day drive out here, stopping overnight in Ohio.  While the carpets were getting cleaned at my new place, I spent a couple nights in a hotel and went into work.  So far I am still just getting a handle on everything there.  There is a lot of new equipment and that state of all of it is unknown.  This means testing and evaluating everything - every cord, every plug, every device.  For example, I have two really nice NAS (Network Attached Storage) devices.  One is perfect and complete; the other had most of the hard drives ripped out of it.  But from the outside, they appear identical.

Plus, while I am trying to get a handle on what we do have that is functional, they want to get out in the field.  We are their shiny new toy and they want to play with us, not keep us in our box (office).  So maybe sometime this next week they will send us out on something small.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Training Complete!

So last week we had our final week of training.  This included a day at Region IV in Atlanta and our final exam at an undisclosed location.  Tuesday morning we got our notice and went to Reisterstown, MD.  That night and the next two days were spent at the Maryland State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) playing in our IM I/Level I exam.  As we guessed, it was an improvised nuclear device (IND) in Washington DC.  As we were in Maryland, we played a supporting role in helping DC as well as accepting survivors.  Having all passed our exam, we graduated on Friday at headquarters in the NRCC.

As of Saturday morning at 8:30, we are on call.  As we are still moving, for the next couple weeks they extended our window to be on scene at an event from 12 hours all the way to 18 hours.  Saturday I was able to secure an apartment in Ashburn and arranged for a new bed.  Now I am home packing up the required items for the next few months in DC.  I plan to drive out early next week and then get started at the office on August 5.  It feels great to be out of training and to get into the real job!

Sunday, July 14, 2013


None of our training prepared us for a sharknado.  California is on it's own!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Death and Destruction (or Leavin' 'Bama)

So this week was interesting, in a morbid sort of way.  Our leaders, what are known as the Command and General Staff, had the classroom portion of the IM I class this past week.  Those of us that work for the C&GS had a week of ever more increasing in complexity case studies and thought experiments.

We started with something simple: Hurricane Sandy.  From a death perspective, Hurricane Sandy was only 285 people.  The bigger issues were things like communications, the density of the population, and finding temporary housing for people.  From there we moved on to a theoretical earthquake on the Hayward Fault in the San Francisco area.  Now we move up to an estimated 4,000 dead and 150,000+ with injuries.

Issues here revolved around Urban Search & Rescue (USAR), logistics, transportation (because by the way, this takes out all bridges), and mass care.

After these seemingly simple tasks, we move on to the big boys: nuclear.  What would happen if an improvised nuclear device (IND) went off in downtown Chicago?  Well we start off with 450,000 deaths and work our way up from there.  3,000 square miles contaminated.  Major telecommunications systems wiped out by the Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP).  (FYI - if this does happen - removing your cell phone battery and putting it back in may be enough to reset it after an EMP - it might just lock it up, not destroy it beyond use!)

Topics of conversation included dealing with the mass casualties, bodies, decontamination and protection of people, and all the contaminated debris, between 30 to 10 feet deep.  And for those of you wondering, the best thing you can do is get inside and as low down as possible.  Wait for specific instructions.  In many cases, waiting just 24 hours is enough that even if you were in a highly contaminated zone, you could get out safely by waiting just that little amount of time.  Bottom line: don't try to outrun it or escape - get inside, get low, and decontaminate yourself by taking off the outer layer of clothes, brushing off all surfaces and showering.  That is all that is needed!  Don't panic - stay indoors - quick DIY decon - follow evac instructions.

(I wish this was clearer - but essentially at 1 hour after the dose is over 1000 R/hr - almost certain death - to as low as 43 R/hr after 14 hours and 10 R/hr after 48 hours!)

And if you thought that nuclear was the worst, on Friday we had the big one.  Yes, bigger than a nuclear device.  We started off small of course: the New Madrid Fault.  12 million people at high risk, 44 million people in the eight state area.  Second up to bat: Anthrax attack in Los Angeles.  90% of those not treated within seven days of exposure are dead.  And to cap off the uplifting week: Pandemic Influenza.  2 million dead.  10 million sick.  40% absenteeism in all industries.  Vaccines take 24 weeks + to develop.  This was one of those "hard situations."  We hope we never have to deal with this in real life 

I'm glad I am learning all this good info in class, but at the same time too much knowledge sort of freaks one out.  To think that we will be on the front line as the Federal leadership in any of these events is amazing.  It makes me truly reflect on just what a job I have here with this.

So, on a more happy note, we are done in Alabama!  We leave for Atlanta tomorrow morning, spend Monday in Atlanta and then on Tuesday we have our final exam.  The location of the final exam is unknown at this time.  Part of the exam is actually getting to an event in 12 hours after notification.  So sometime Monday night into Tuesday, we will get a notification that our final exam is started and told where in the country to report to.  The final exam will go until Friday when we have our final graduation in the afternoon (assuming we all pass the final) and then moving to DC!  Rochester friends - I'll be home soon for a few days before heading out.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Happy 4th!

Ahhh, a short week.  On Monday and Tuesday we had our IM II Certification exercise.  For this one, we had to play with the State of Alabama for Hurricane Ivan from 2004.  They actually had 10 people from the State here so it was more realistic than some in the past.  And now we get a few days of rest and relaxation. Coming up next week is our last week of classes!  Then next weekend we get moved to Atlanta for a day and then off to an "undisclosed location" for our final IM I exercise.  Almost done!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The work don't stop!

Wow, what a busy two weeks.  And it is not going to slow down much these final three weeks.  But there is that light at the end of the tunnel!!  So, to recap, two weeks ago we started with another leadership course.  This one was called the True Growth course.  They ended up repeating a lot of the same stuff we heard from the other leadership courses.  But after that was done, a subset of us had two days of technical training on the GATR - Ground to Air Transmit and Receiver.  The GATR is an inflatable satellite dish.  Unlike most rigid dishes that are 500 lbs plus units often requiring a truck, this one packs down into five Pelican cases with a total weight of about 300 lbs.

Luckily, the American Red Cross trained me very well in satellite communications so I was one of the more knowledgeable ones there doing the training.  Over the course of two days, we set the dishes up about 10 times each.  Our final exam was a race between our three teams (Blue, Red, and Region 9) to see who could go from the packed cases to completing a phone call to the instructor over the satellite system.  This involved setting up the ground location, inflating the dish, doing precision aiming (remember, satellites are in geosynchronous orbit 22,236 miles away from the earth - a slight movement on the ground can land you miles off in space!), acquire the signal, work with the satellite company to activate the service, setup the phone system, and complete the call.  And in 42 minutes, the Blue team lead by me won!  The other teams took 56 minutes and 82 minutes to finish theirs.

Last weekend was spent setting up our new computers, iPhones, and iPads.  I taught the same course six times.  It went well, but it took up my entire weekend.  Hence, no post last weekend.

This past week we have been in our IM II class for our Level II Certification.  I was afraid it would be more program stuff like in IM III but this was a 5 day long simulation.  We worked a major disaster from all angles - earthquakes, bombings, fires, landmines, missing kids, kidnapping, and bioterrorists attacks.  Oh, and if that was not enough, let's add a hurricane on top of it all!  They were 5 long, exhausting days but it was fun to get to do lots of work on a big event.

Today we get more satellite training and prep for tomorrow which is the final IM II Certification test.  We got a small brief this morning.  Our Level II qualification test is Hurricane Ivan from 2004.  Why make something up when they can use the real thing!  Our team has a ringer though.  Our team leader not only worked the real Ivan, but also has done it twice more in other qualification exercises.  So this is Ivan #4 for him.  Should help us out!

And with that, we start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  A short week this week with the 4th of July, then a week of IM I classes, and then our final week is the IM I Certification test.  July 19 at 3 we are done!!

One final note - we have been officially renamed to be the IMAT East instead of IMAT Blue - the current team's name.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A heavy weight

This past week started slow.  It was a repeat of the ICS 400 class I took at Camp Ripley.  Wednesday we learned all about the Public Assistance (PA) program and how they process their projects.  The afternoon concluded with a showing of the movie K19.  We are going to be discussing the various management styles and decisions they made in a future leadership class.  I have seen this movie once before, but I am not sure where.  It must have been somewhere in college.

The week ended with a bang.  Er, thankfully, without one.  Friday was the CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and high-yield Explosives) workshop.  They went all out on this bringing in the head Nuclear guy from FEMA, the head guy from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), and the Department of Energy's team leader that went to Japan for the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant incident.  PhD's around the room!

This day was eye opening with regards to different biological and nuclear weapons that we could run into.  The entire afternoon was spent exercising what would happen if a 10kT nuclear device was set off in Washington DC.  Our team leader is thinking that for our Level I validation test at the very end it will be this scenario.  It would fit as a level I event.  The end result of the training:  if a nuclear device goes off, get inside, go deep, and stay there at least 1 hour.  The natural urge to flee will actually hurt you more than if you shelter right away and wait.  The half life for fallout is surprisingly short.  That little time inside a building will save you a ton of exposure!!!

The NNSA/LLNL/IBM collaboration has produced six HPC systems that have been ranked among the world’s most powerful computers including: The Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI) Blue Pacific; ASCI White; the Advanced Simulation and Computing (ASC) Purple; Blue Gene/L; Blue Gene/P, Dawn; and Blue Gene/Q, Sequoia. ASCI White, Blue Gene/L and now Sequoia all attained a no. 1 ranking on the TOP500 list. The Blue Gene line of supercomputers received a Presidential Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Obama in 2009.  At least three of those systems passed through IBM Rochester while I was there.

The week ahead includes a personal leadership course and two days training on one of our portable satellite systems.  That should be a good time (assuming the weather is decent!)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Hot and Humid

Welcome back!  This past week was a week-long class that was specific to my position.  The best parts of these classes is always getting to talk to people that have done the work in the field.  While the academic part is okay, these classes just further point to the fact that we will not know how we are doing until we actually do it.

Besides the classroom classes, I worked hard and finished all of the 44 required independent study courses for the academy.  These ranged from equal rights to hiring veterans to more in depth information on the program areas (IA, PA, and HM).  And, if you cannot guess from the title, the heat has arrived.  Thank goodness for well working AC systems!

This next week will include repeating a 2 day course I took last December, a 2 day formal evaluation for level III, and the CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and high-yield Explosives) Workshop.  It will be interesting to see what they cover in that one day!

Friday, May 31, 2013

MAM Class

Ah, a short week finally.  After returning from break, we were originally scheduled to have our intermediate management class including hiring staff at a JFO, a skill we actually need.  Next, they told us that was replaced with ICS 300, a class most of us had already taken.  And so when we get back, guess what, it changed again.  On Wednesday we had a half day Virtual Table Top Exercise (VTTX).  On Thursday, we found out we would be taking the MAM Class.  MAM stands for the Mission Assignment Manager.  Mission assignments are the way we task other federal agencies to do work (and get paid for that work).  It seems like they took one day of material and stretched it out to two days.  On the plus side, we get a lot of breaks and free time.  And as of now, Friday Morning, they are still not sure if we have the weekend off or not yet.  Here's hoping to a couple days rest!

Monday, May 27, 2013


FREEDOM!!!  Well, for three days anyway.  As I wrap up my mini-break at home, I get set to return to the final seven weeks of training.  As expected, this past week was very helpful to me.  Once we got to New York, we spent the first day and a half at the JFO covering more program related stuff.  I thought this was sort of strange to do this like this.  These sessions were speakers standing up and talking to us as we sat in a classroom.  And many of these speakers themselves flew into NY to present.  I am not sure why they did not just bring the speakers to Anniston and have them teach us there like they have for the past five weeks.

However, once this was past, the afternoon of the second day was GREAT!  I finally got to meet someone that is doing the job I will be doing.  Five weeks in seems like a good time to start actually learning what my job is.  My California counterpart and I spent the whole afternoon with the gentleman and even went out to dinner together afterwards with him.  Those six hours spent with my peer were more valuable than anything else we had done so far.  I wish that since they brought us to New York that we would have had the entire time with our counterparts to see the real day to day operations required in our positions.

But alas, all good things must come to an end.  As rumored, Thursday was an all-day exercise.  This was similar to the prior week’s events, focused mainly on the program areas.  The cool part about it was that our team got to do it at the New York City Office of Emergency Management’s Emergency Operations Center.  This setting was an amazing facility to work in.  Friday morning they had us write a brief paper about our experiences in NYC and then it was off to Rochester.  A quick three days home to see some friends and then back to Anniston to keep on keepin’ on.

Monday, May 20, 2013


Wow, what a busy week this past week was.  You can tell because I missed my weekly blog post this past weekend.  As I am writing this post today, I am sitting in Union Station in Washington, D.C.  This is a flashback for me to high school.  We took a class trip to DC and it included a stop here at Union Station.  So since my last post, we have been going non-stop.  That weekend was the Incident Action Planning (IAP) class (ominous foreshadowing for later in this post ;).  On Monday, we had classes on both the WebEOC online management tool and the general use of Geospatial Information Systems (GIS).  After Sandy hit, they flew plans and took over 60,000 geo-tagged pictures and then placed them on a map.  Each green dot is one or more pictures.  This allowed survivors to virtually check out their house.

On Tuesday, we started the Incident Management III course.  This is the course that was a combination of classroom learning and a functional exercise that would help certify us as a type III team (see my first post for type info).  Before the class even started on Tuesday, we had to write a one page essay on one of the 20 key FEMA items and relate it to the events of Katrina in Alabama.  Tuesday was a leadership class all day.  Wednesday was five classes that covered the various programs FEMA offers such as Individual Assistance, Public Assistance, and internal spent plan processing (government budgeting).  These five classes would be the basis for our final exam.  Thursday was spent covering what happened in Katrina and some of the lessons learned from that disaster.

And then we get to the exercise.  This was designed to simulate the first response to a type III event.  It started Thursday night at 7 PM with the disaster briefing.  This event was taken directly from the Nashville/Tennessee flooding of 2010.  After that we immediately started our “pre-departure” work of preparing for the event.  The night was meant to simulate travel so we “arrived” on site Friday morning at 8 AM.  We had until 4 PM to complete all of our work.  Each of us preformed our specific roles.  For me, that meant ordering staff, equipment, and services for the various FEMA field locations at a disaster: the Joint Field Office (JFO), Area Field Offices (AFO’s), and Disaster Recovery Centers (DRC’s).  I was also responsible for creating the radio usage plan for all federal employees sent to the disaster.

The major thing that we had to complete by 4 PM was the IAP.  This team document was 30% of every team member’s overall score.  Since the course required at least 75% to pass, this one document allow could cause everyone to fail even if they did perfect on everything else.  As we got to about 2 PM, it was clear our planning division, the main area responsible for creating the IAP, was in trouble.  Using our team approach, I went over and asked what I could do to help out.  They gave me a bunch of the raw, hand written data.  I took these forms and translated them into the correct FEMA 215 and 204 forms.  We also had issues with the network that prevented shared printing.  But I got a cable and was able hook up a local system.  By completing several of the 215’s and 204’s, we ended up printing out our 22 page IAP at 3:58 PM, got it signed, and turned in right at 4 PM.

Saturday we had our final written exam based on Wednesday’s classes.  Finally, after the test we got a chance to get our grades from all week long.  Our pre-class essay was up to 14 points, 20 points for class participation on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 30 points for the IAP, 16 points for our individual work during the exercise, and 20 points for the final exam.  I ended up getting all 14 points on the paper (which I was told was rare), 20 for class, our IAP earned 27 points (90%), 12 for the exercise (which was the default score), and 19 on my final exam, totaling 92 points (second highest score for the class).

On Sunday, we left Alabama at 8 AM to head to the Atlanta airport.  After sitting on the runway for 2 hours because of a storm, we had a quick flight up to DC.  My parents picked me up at the airport.  It was great to see them.  We went over to see where my new office is in Herndon and check out the surrounding cities.  I think I found the area I want to move to, so now the hunt intensifies.

Monday, today, we spent at FEMA Headquarters at 500 C Street in the heart of DC.  We got to spend some quality time with the CIO again today so we could get a better understanding of how he wants us to fit into the overall picture.  And now I sit here at Union Station waiting to catch a train to New York’s Penn Station.  Tomorrow morning we need to report to the JFO (see above;) bright and early at 7:30 AM, keeping in mind it will take an hour to get there on the subway.  We had hear rumors they are planning another real world exercise for us here on Thursday.  We will see!  And Friday afternoon, I get to fly home to Rochester.  We get three whole days off before having to return back to Alabama.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

And the classes beat on

This week continued with our classroom training. And still continues now! In order to prepare us for the rigors of working in a disaster, they are running our training contiguously, every day and night, including weekends. So today, Mother’s Day, I am sitting in a class on how to write Incident Action Plans (IAPs). IAPs provide all the work direction for the federal and state response to a disaster. For Hurricane Sandy, these documents range in size upwards of 100 pages long. And a new one is produced each day for the next day’s work.

In addition to the IAP class, we spent the main part of the week in a management class. This covered everything a good federal supervisor needs to know – rules on promotions, training, feedback, reviews, working with unions, and general covering your ass tactics. All of these things are the drivers of why I never wanted to go into the management chain at IBM and choose to remain technical. Here in my position, I get to straddle the line of needing technical skills while also being a middle manager. When deployed in the field, I will have three managers under me each with their own team. The three teams will cover IT and networking, telephone and radio communications, and customer service and help desk. Also scrambled somewhere in there is TV and cable service as well.

Besides classes during the day, we have homework to do at night. This includes a list of over 50 online classes we need to complete by the end of the academy. To complement our classes, we also have three books to read. And finally, we had a paper to write for this week’s activities. This upcoming week should be interesting, fun, and partly terrifying. Monday starts with two classes on Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and WebEOC, a web-based system for tracking and managing incidents. That is not the hard part. Tuesday through Saturday will be our Incident Management III course. If you remember my first post, I talked about levels from the lowest of 5 to the highest of 1. This is our level 3 test on the way to level 1 certification. Normally, teams work together for a couple years before taking the level 3 certification. We are taking it only 3 weeks in. That is the level they expect us to be at coming into this. As we take this test, we can pass or fail as a team, pass or fail as an individual, or a combination thereof. After this concludes next Saturday, we will be traveling to Washington, DC on Sunday with another full week ahead. So full speed ahead with classes and testing!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

It's not that I don't want to, it's that I can't

After a week of IT specific training, we were drummed with a new mantra (see title).  If people thought that IBM was picky with their rules, it is nothing like the nest that I have to deal with here.  FEMA is a part of the Department of Homeland Security.  So not only do we have all of FEMA's rules, but also DHS's as well.  This leads to a ton of overhead and security measures.  All software and hardware must be pre-approved before use.  All hardware must be made in the USA (no Lenovo's allowed!).  If it is an All In One that has both network print and fax, you cannot have both the fax and network cable connected at the same time (they are afraid someone could dial into the fax line and then hack the software to bridge over the network and access it from the outside).  And on and on and on.....

They also made it clear that now that we are federal employees with security clearances, when we break the rules (ie. install software), it is not just that you lose your job.  You go to jail.  Heavy stuff.  And just to make sure you are following the rules, your PC and all attached items are scanned at least every three hours, if not more often.  Anything found that is outside of the standards is immediately removed from the network and your account suspended.  They are not playing around here.  And that covers anything down to a thumb drive - not allowed unless it is a government issued IronKey with remote self destruct hardware - you actually hear it pop when it blows its self up.  We expected to see smoke, but there was none, just the noise.  And the best part, if we see people using their own non-IronKeys, we are suppose to remove them and snap them in half in front of them to prove they are destroyed, just in case they moved any sensitive information on to them.

As this weekend wraps up, we go into a long couple of weeks.  Next week starting Monday we have a 5 day leadership class, then a 2 day class all weekend on document writing, then another 5 days of tool training during the second week.  That weekend we travel to DC.  The following Monday we are spending at headquarters and then going via train to New York.  4 days in New York and then home for Memorial Day Weekend.  A couple days of time home and then back at.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Oath of Office

Wow, what a first week of training.  Since arriving last Sunday, this is basically the first time I have been able to come up for air.  Starting Sunday night, we had team building exercises.  On Monday, introductions, purpose, organization, and doctrine.  One of the cool things that happened on Monday that I did not write about in my last post was that we all had to take an Oath of Office, the same one the President has to take.  That was a humbling moment.

Tuesday and Wednesday was the basic "welcome to the company" stuff - HR, benefits, rules, regs, EEO, all that fun stuff.  Tuesday night, however, I did get my badge!  I now have my "Federal Emergency Response Official" badge :)  Thursday and Friday we had a Basics of FEMA course, covering the high level doctrine and overall response process.  It was a good overview, however, slightly dry.  In addition to our in classroom classes, we were given a list of about 40 independent study on line courses we need to complete by the time we leave here.  Everything from the ICS basics to a class on Constitution Day.  And if that was not enough, we have required books to read for class.  They started us all out with "The First 90 Days in Government" - talk about a page turner!  We need to have that one done by the end of this next week, at which point we get book number two in the FEMA Book Club.

Our team is really good, lots of experienced people on it.  There are a couple like me that are new to FEMA, so I am not completely alone in that account.  Our team has also been meeting at nights after class to prepare our selves and get to know each other better, both professionally and personally.  We spent all day yesterday (Saturday) working in our teams.  As our leader put it, we are 100% dedicated to this academy for the 12 weeks we are here.  So they are going to take every chance we can to meet and build our skills.

This works well too.  There is not much to do here besides work on FEMA stuff.  Transportation is limited at best, and non-existent at most times.  So far the meals have been good, except for now over the weekend.  Last nights dinner was really bad, but no transportation services to go out even though we were told they would.  Good thing I had some snacks in the room.

This next week we have classes specific to our position.  So I should be in IT classes learning their systems and policies.  At least that will be a little more interesting than basics classes.

So why all this work and push to get done?  Well, in just about 2 weeks, we will be taking our Incident Management III certification test.  This test will certify both us as individuals as well as us as a team.  This will make us an official Level 3 response team.  A couple weeks later, we take our Level 2 certification.  At that point, the boss says we can be sent out.  While most of us have been thinking August 1 as our start of deployment date, the Administrator told all of us that after June 1, we could be called out the field!

And then finally, before we leave the academy, our last item will be our Level 1 certification.  This is the major league item - the reason we are all here.  These tests are  not easy.  They said that in the normal field operations, a team would work together for at least 10 YEARS before taking the Level 1 test.  We need to be at that level in 12 weeks.  So yes, the pressure is on!  They tested 16 teams 2 years ago - 3 national type 1 teams and 13 type 2 teams.  Of the 16 teams, which at that point had been together for at least two years, only 4 of the 16 teams passed.  Not a very high success rate.  And they are looking at us to pass first time at each of the three levels.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Day one... Check!

Well, after them waiting until the last moment to send me my formal job off (3:46 EST Friday, needed to be accepted by 4 PM), I did travel on Sunday to the Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, Alabama.  It was an early morning flight, which at first seemed like a bad thing.  However, the weather only got worse as the day went on and I was able to fly just ahead of the weather.  So maybe because of the early flight, I made it here on time!

Today was our first day of training.  As expected, the morning was a bunch of overview information.  The best part was that the head of FEMA, Administrator Craig Fugate, gave us a really good pep talk.  In the afternoon we started the team building process and learning about everyone else on our 30 person team.  There are the two national 30 person teams here; my team on the East Coast, the Blue team, and the West Coast team, the Red Team.  In addition, there is a 10 person regional team as well.  Part of the training will be in our individual teams, others will be with my counterpart on the Red team in my same Communications Unit Leader position.  The Regional team does not have our position.  As we were exploring our new training facility, I found a couple of interesting labs next to each other; the Explosives Lab and the Meth Lab... this training could be more interesting than I thought ;)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Cleared for take-off!

Well, at the last minute (okay, with 4 hours to go), I was granted my clearance to report to training!  So Sunday I will be taking off for Alabama for the IMAT Academy!  Yippee!!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Less than a week... maybe?!?

Well, the IMAT academy starts this Sunday down in Anniston, Alabama.  At this point I am stuck awaiting my Standard Agency Security check to come back clear.  Somehow in 5 weeks time they have had my background info they have not been able to clear me.  So as here I am today, checking my email every 5 minutes to see if anything has changed.  Nope, still no email.  So the waiting game continues.

We did get the schedule for the training.  It is starting, as I mentioned, this Sunday on April 21 and goes until July 12th.  They have stuff scheduled for most days in there, including the weekends.  As it sits right now, we will get two days off to come home over Memorial Weekend.  In addition, there is a "field trip" planned to both Washington DC and New York to discuss the Hurricane Sandy operations.  The leader of my team, Michael Byrne, has been the main Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO) for the Sandy efforts.  So I am excited to get to work under someone that has a vast, real world experience in this area.

Here's hoping to get wheels up on Sunday!!

Friday, March 29, 2013

3 weeks to go! and it's storm season...

Only three weeks before I depart Rochester to start training.  I have heard from several people that they have been contacted by the investigators checking my background for the security clearances needed.  Hopefully that will all go smoothly and I can get my official travel orders.

I also had to complete paperwork and a class to get my official travel card.  That thing will hopefully get a workout with all the trips I'll be taking.  While our training is set for three months, going until July 19th, not all of that time will be in Alabama at the Center for Domestic Preparedness.  We should get to take a few field trips to see the current teams in action.  One trip should be to the Hurricane Sandy teams in New York and New Jersey.  They have been on location since October and are set to be there until the of May.

For anyone in the Rochester area, next Monday April 1st is the local SkyWarn training class.  If anyone is interested in becoming a spotter, or just wants to learn more about the weather, this class is a educational and highly entertaining.  It starts at 6:30 PM at the Rochester International Event Center down by the airport.  You don't have to be into amateur radio, everyone is welcome!  You can find out more details at the La Crosse NWS page.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The post that started it all

For the past several years, I have been working on growing my skills in the Emergency Management realm.  As part of this, I have been attending more and more classes, working towards being certified in Minnesota as an Emergency Manager.  Part of my growth was getting accepted into the FBI's InfraGard program.  This program focuses on providing select individuals with access to sensitive but unclassified information regarding infrastructure protection.  One specialty area is the cyber security area, which is where I fit in.  The local Minnesota chapter of the InfraGard program maintains a job listing page of emergency management related jobs in the area.  While cruising this board, I found the post.

The post was a FEMA posting talking about their recruitment for two national incident management assistance teams (IMATs) and one regional team.  While I had heard of IMTs (incident management teams), I was not familiar with the IMAT.  So I did my research.  FEMA currently has three national teams and 13 regional teams that assist in disasters across the country.  FEMA classifies events by the level of their complexity.  Usually, the more complex, the more severe.  But complexity is the official term used.  These events go from a Type 5 which may be a single house fire up to a Type 1, an event such as Katrina or Sandy.  Each IMAT or IMT is rated at the level they are skilled to.  For example, here in Minnesota we have a Type 2 team that focuses on wildfires.  With these FEMA teams, the regional teams are Type 2 teams but the national ones are Type 1 teams.  These are big boys - the largest of them all.

After Katrina, there was the Post Katrina Emergency Reform Act that included creating both the national and regional response teams.  These teams are set to be on call 24x7x365.  Within two hours of notification, they need to be mobile and within 12 hours on location of the event.  In addition to responding after the event occurred.  This bill now allowed them to pre-deploy to be on scene as soon as the event happened.  For example with Sandy in October 2012, they were on scene before anything happened.  As I am writing this now, we were told the teams will be on scene until May of 2013.

With that as background, returning to the posting above, FEMA was looking to create two new larger national teams.  One of the national teams would be based out of Herndon, VA and the other in Sacramento,  CA. Each of these teams have the major support areas needed in the Incident Command System (ICS) structure, part of the National Incident Management System (NIMS).  The national teams would be almost 30 people in size while the regional teams were about half that size.  In all, there were 70 positions open.

One of these positions in the national teams is the Communications Unit Leader, better known as the COM-L (see blog name).  With the two national teams, there were two COM-L positions open.  This unit leader is responsible for providing both voice and data access to incident management staff.  This requires someone that is versed in both the technology, computers, and networking side as well as the over the air, radio, and voice communications side.  With my job at IBM, and general geek love, I had the computer side.  And with my experience in Amateur Radio, ARMER (the Minnesota state wide emergency radio network), and other over the air communications, I had the other side as well.

What initially startled me about this was the speed at which this post was proposed to move at.  I had applied for one FEMA position in the past, July 2012.  It took until February 2013 before I was notified that someone else has filled that position.  I sort of expected this was the normal pace for government hiring.  This post laid out an entirely different schedule:

  • February 6, 2013: Jobs Posted
  • February 13, 2013: Jobs Closed - only 7 days to apply!
  • End of February: Top candidates selected
  • Mid March:  Top candidates invited to the Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) in Alabama for a simulated disaster interview.  Job offers would be made THAT DAY while on site.
  • April 7, 2013: Report back to the CDP to begin 4 months of training
  • August 1, 2013: Take over for the existing teams and be deployed
Basically two months from announce until on the job.  Talk about quick!  So I figured, what the heck, lets apply and see how it goes.  I submitted my resume and answered a series of online questions specific to the COM-L position.  I selected that I would accept with DC or California as my work location.  After all, the point of these teams is to be deployed so they are not home that often.  And with me currently in Minnesota, I could move to either location.  (Side note: During the interview, they told us the one current team was only home for 16 days during the last year.  But the flip side was that before this spurt of activity, they had been at home for almost one and a half years.)

The first week in March I got an email saying that I had passed the first round and they needed to know by midnight the following day if I could commit to the third interview round and training in Alabama.  If yes, I would be advanced to the second round, if not, the journey was over.  I agreed and on to the second round I went.  (Side note:  When they sent out this email, they exposed the distribution list.  There were 14 people on the list, so I assumed that is whom had made it into this round).  A week later I got notified that I passed the second round and was invited down to the CDP in Anniston Alabama for the final round of the interview.  I was going to be interviewing on Thursday, the third day of interviews, traveling the day before and after.  They were purposefully vague on what was going to happen.  They told us it would simulate an actual disaster and would be a practical exam during the interview.  They wanted to see how we would react under stress in addition to our personal and technical skills.  They also informed us there would be a physical assessment including a 1.5 mile endurance walk to make sure we were capable of operating in less than ideal environments.

On March 13th, it was off to Alabama.  It was an early flight leaving at 6 AM.  I got to Atlanta about 12:30 and checked in.  I have never had to show my ID so much before.  They told us the bus was leaving for Alabama at 5 PM, just 4.5 hours to wait.  Makes me wonder why they booked me on such an early flight then.  But the bus was there and I could secure my luggage and just hang around the airport.  I took my stuff down and sure enough, a bus was parked just outside the doors.  The driver checked my ID and took my luggage.  By 5 PM I was on the bus, but we were not leaving.  Of course, other flights were delayed.  So we finally left about 6:30.  I wondered how a bus could park at an airport for 6+ hours knowing that cars are swished away after a couple minutes.  But then again, I suppose the Homeland Security logos on the bus might have had something to do with it.  What made me laugh even more was that right where the bus was parked were several "No Standing Any Time" signs.  Fine, we won't stand here, we'll just park for a few hours :)

While waiting and during the bus ride over to the CDP, I chatted with my fellow applicants.  We determined that we were all there for the Logistics branch (see the org chart above).  And with Logs the third branch of four, and us interviewing on day three of four, it became clear how they were structuring the interviews.

90 minutes on the bus and a time zone change back an hour and we arrive at the CDP at 7 PM.  They take us into a registration center, check our ID again, and issue us our first packet.  I can see already that several trees were harmed in the making of this interview.  We spend the first hour from 7 to 8 in a briefing of what was to happen the next day.  They also inform us at 7:30 that the dinning hall is open from 5:30 to 7:30.. oops,  they just made us all miss dinner.  Oh well, the briefing must go on.  We learn that we start the next day at 5:30 AM.  Again, they are purposefully vague on what exactly will happen.  Finally at 8 they let us go.  The dinning hall was nice enough to pack up the left overs so we did get a box dinner.  We moved into our dorm style barracks and get settled in the for the night.  I think we all were nervous.  And in a strange environment, not much sleep was had by all.

Up at 4:30 AM Thursday to get ready for the big event.  Our dorms had a shared bathroom with another room.  We split our shower times and headed for the first building at 5:30.  We get there and get a quick bite to eat and then on to a bus at 6 AM.  And, if you didn't guess, another ID check before we get on the bus.  They take us from the dorms about a mile down the road to the Noble Training Facility (NTF).  More ID checks as we enter.

Once inside, we are told to report to Room 1175 to find out our schedule for the day.  It turns out there will be five sections to the interview, all happening at different times for each person.  As we all our recording when we each need to do each of the five items, we find out that everyone has two events at the same time at different locations.  We are all puzzled by this.  Turns out that the one time list got duplicated incorrectly to the second event.  Hence there is a mad dash to get everything figured out for the last mystery item.  This also revealed that there were 49 people there for the interviews.  So of the 17 open logistics positions ( 7 on each national team and 3 regional), 49 made it to the final cut.  The technical interviews showed that there were 10 people here for the two COM-L positions.  The last number I will give you is that we were told for the total logistics section openings (17), there were 257 applicants.  So 257 down to 49 in the last round for 17 positions.  For the COM-L specifically, I do not know how many applications came in but 14 made it past round one, 10 past round two, and only two would get jobs after round three.

My first event is at 7 AM and is a Simulation Briefing.  As part of our prep materials, they sent us a slide deck from a fictional disaster in Costa Richardo (based loosely on Costa Rico) .  This included some initial disaster materials as well as history, political, and cultural briefings.  During this 7 AM briefing, they tell us it is 15 days after that initial brief and we had a volcanic eruption that will cause a lahar event later that night.  After the hour briefing, we had two and half hours to build our response plan in a team of eight people.  We were told that during this team exercise they were evaluating how we worked individually and that the overall group result was not as important as how we worked in the group.  The biggest issue we had was that no one person was designated as the leader.  We all sort of dug into our own things.  However, this lead to some issues in the end.  I offered up some spectacular ideas.  Some were used, some weren't.  But I was calm and cool under pressure and accepted the criticism well.  One of my team members even told me afterwards how well I responded.  Ultimately, my grid resource allocation timetable was the thing that saved us in the end (This was my own highly modified ICS 215 merged with a time line and based on a technique I learned in my ICS 400 class at Camp Ripley - everyone loved it when they saw it).

After the team portion concluded around 11 AM, we had an hour break for lunch.  At 12:15, I reported for my next activity, a written assessment.  Based on the team work we did that morning, we had to use Word and write up a part of the Incident Action Plan (IAP) that was roughly based on an ICS 204.  They did not want us to use the 204, but to write a free form memo style report that covers similar topics.  My masters degree had prepared me well for writing.  While most of the other people writing up their reports were hunting and pecking keys, I was flying along.  One of my team members were doing theirs next to me and afterwards told me how as soon as they heard how fast I was typing they were worried.  I got done and had a couple minutes left so I decided to make it look pretty.  They were using Word 2010 so I just used some of the built in theme elements to quickly add in colors, bars, fonts, and sizes to show the various elements clearly.  This was the same formatting I did for my IBM wiki postings.  It looks great but is all built in so it goes extremely fast.  We save our written report and it is on to the verbal presentation.

Down the hall to another room and at 12:45 PM I had my oral presentation.  We had seven minutes to present to the fictional Incident Commander about our plans from that morning and our written report.  I was smooth and calm and presented our case.  They asked me a couple follow up questions and that section was complete.  

On to part four of the marathon - the Technical Interview.  Here we had 30 minutes to talk specifically about our position.  Up until now, it was more general emergency management skills.  I walk into my interview room and who is there?  Rob Thomas.  No, not that Rob Thomas.  Rob is the CIO of all of FEMA.  This guy knows his IT stuff.  The drilling goes about as I expected.  They cover my technical skills.  My weak point is the Federal Government regulations as they test me on FISMA and FEMA regulation 4300.  I have no clue on either of these :(  But the rest of the interview is strong.  I told them how I had just presented an intro to ICS class a few nights before.  Interestingly they cling on to that.  They loved that I was out there spreading the word on ICS and helping others prepare.  It very well may have been one of the items that lifted me from my lack of Federal policies.

I finish the technical part a little after 2 PM and now get a rest until the physical test at 5 PM.  I am told no one has failed the physical test yet.  Great, let me be the one guy that does.  The physical test is made up of:
  • Walk up and down 20 steps in 5 minutes. 
  • Climb up and down a step ladder to the height of 10 feet in 5 minutes. 
  • Walk 1.5 miles in 30 minutes.
  • Lift a 10 lb. package from the ground to a shelf at eye level 5 times in 3 minutes.
  • Reaching up and pulling down 5, 10 lb. packages from eye level and stacking the packages on the ground in 3 minutes.
  • Without assistance, lift and carry a 50 lb. package 10 feet and place it on a table.
  • Bend from the waist to 90 degrees 5 times and return upright without assistance.
  • Squat down, without assistance, while holding the back of a chair.  Continue lowering your body until your knees are at a 90-degree bend and return to a standing position.  Repeat this exercise 5 times.
All of these seem simple and straight forward.  The only one that scared me was the walk.  That is a 3 MPH pace for 30 minutes.  I did not know if this would be indoors, outdoors, in woods, carrying gear, or what.  And what happens if I finish at 31 minutes instead of 30?  As luck would have it, it is done on a treadmill with speed controls.  I set it 3.1 MPH to give myself a little buffer and kick butt.  All the rest go smoothly.  We finish about 6:30 at which point we bus back to the dorms.  More ID checks getting on the bus and again off at the dorms.  

They tell us the calls will be coming that night.  If you got a job, you will get a call.  If not, no call.  And don't wait up past midnight.  If you get the call, you start the next morning again at 5:30.  If not, you get a 6:45 AM bus back to the Airport.  Just past 8 PM I hear a strange sound in my room.  They called my room phone and not my cell.  They offer me the COM-L job in the DC area.  I ask several questions and they send over the formal offer.  I send back my counter offer and we settle in the middle.  As of 9 PM on March 14, 2013 (Pi Day!), I am the latest employee of FEMA!!

With much excitement in the air, not much sleep is gotten again and up early for another 5:30 start.  A quick breakfast and on the bus at 6 AM back to NTF.  This time we start filling out the paperwork.  All those poor trees.  Then the finger prints and time to put in for my security clearance.  Luckily they told us in advance that if selected we would need to fill all this out.  So I had collected all the information they needed. All 127 pages of it.  This detailed where I lived, worked, people I knew, financial status, criminal records and all foreign contact.  One of the largest sections for me was covering all international trade shows, conferences, and trips I had made in the last seven years.  With IBM, that was a long list!

We finish the paperwork at noon, back to the dorms, check out, and off to Atlanta to come home.  Now we wait.  Wait for the security clearances to come through and then report to the CPD for training.  They have told us now that they plan to start training April 21 and be done July 19, ready to deploy on August 1, 2013.  And hence the new adventure begins. 

Let me apologize for the length of this first major post.  I assume future ones will not be as long.  But I wanted to lay out some of the history and the events that lead up to this point.  In the future, I plan to post here about our training back at the CPD as well my move to the DC area and our deployments.  And if no one else happens to be following this, at least I will have a record of this adventure into COM-Land.

Here we go...

As I move into this new time in my life, I thought it would be good to keep a blog of my experiences in training and deployments.  As I start out, I will provide some background info on what has happened up to this point.  Moving forward from here, I expect it to be more in real time as things happen and as I have time to make posts.