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.

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