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« It's The End of the World! So What? | Main | Emergency Management Solutions October 2014 »



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Jim L.

Hello Lucian,

I would like to comment on your essay, "Do We Really Need a Czar?" (Emergency Management Solutions, October 2104). You question the appointment of a “Czar” (as you say, a media term) at any time by a sitting President and especially the appointment of Ron Klain to be the “Ebola Czar” (again, the media title). Is the appointment of an expert manager (from experience as a manger and education) to oversee integration and coordination of the federal response to a specific problem a bad idea? I don’t necessarily think so and in this case may be the best course of actions.

Consider the following: James Lee Witt owned a construction company and was a long time Judge in Yell County, Arkansas before being appointed by President Clinton to become the Director of FEMA in 1993. Mr. Witt is consider by many in our profession to have been one of the very best FEMA administrator ever and now has a very successful disaster management consulting company. Obviously, an outstanding manager and not a subject matter expert until 1993. Admiral Thad Allen was called to service as a “Czar” following Hurricane Katrina (2005) and then again to management the response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. Hardly an expert in post-disaster management or deep water oil drilling, he proved to be a very effective manager, exactly what was needed at the time.

From personal experience, I was involved in the Denver, CO portion of TOPOFF 1. This very large, complex exercise evolved around the simulated release of a very infectious disease in a theater in Denver (pneumonic plague) and simultaneous attacks in Portsmouth, NH and Washington, DC. The health system response effort in Colorado was led by state public health and focused on supporting the hospital systems. Makes sense from a Dr.’s point of view. This strategy failed. The hospital system was overwhelmed and collapsed and the exercise was ended. Would a non-medical person have done a better job of managing the response to this problem? Maybe not, but the subject matter expert in charge, a medical doctor, didn’t succeed.

Mr. Klain may be the best person to manage and coordinate the federal response to Ebola. It’s not like medical doctors, experts at CDC, and many other experts wouldn’t be part of the Mr. Klain’s team or, at the time, such experts would have been members of Mr. Witt or Admiral Allen’s management teams. Great leaders surround themselves with the best and the brightest. This threat requires an expert manager - MD, PHD, MBA, whatever - not a subject matter know-it-all with tunnel vision.

The appointment of a non-professional brings a fresh look at a problem that may require a manager more than a subject matter expert. They both have their place.


Jim Lancy, MA, CEM
City of Arvada, CO

Lucien Canton

Jim -

Thanks for your comments. I very much agree with you that sometimes an outsider can see the big picture more clearly than those immersed in the problem or with inherent biases. Your experience in TOPOFF 1 is a good illustration of this.

My problem is not with the qualifications of the individual but with the tendency to go outside the system whenever there's a "new" crisis. It suggests a lack of faith in the system that we've spent decades developing. I suspect Mr. Klain is in the process of pulling together a team, finding office space, scheduling meetings, and trying to figure out what authority he has. Had the President simply declared an emergency and designated him a Federal Coordinating Officer, many of these issues would not exist.

Your two examples of Witt and Allen actually make my point. Witt had been the emergency services manager for the State of Arkansas for about five years before being appointed to head FEMA and had dealt with several serious disasters. His work within FEMA was done within the context of his responsibilities and authorities as Director under 44 CFR. Thad Allen had considerable experience with oil spills (his first was, I believe, in 1980)and as an agency administrator. During Hurricane Katrina he was appointed as a Federal Coordinating Officer and acted under the authorities granted in the Stafford Act. His work in the Gulf spill was performed using the authorities granted to him by the National Oil Spill Response Plan.

I think what makes these two men such great leaders is their ability to see the big picture and to move beyond the plan to do things differently. But they were experienced and they did have clear authority to act, unlike an appointed "Czar."

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