I recently interviewed James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during the administration of President Bill Clinton. During his tenure, Clinton elevated FEMA to cabinet status, and Witt overturned FEMA’s previously poor reputation. Witt is now president of James Lee Witt Associates, Washington, D.C., consulting on emergency and disaster preparedness to local and state governments. Witt also serves as CEO of the International Code Council, which sets international standards for building construction. This March, GlobalOptions Group, a provider of domestic and international risk management services, acquired James Lee Witt Associates.
A: You must have a backup plan and backup system in place. Great examples include “vendor on call” relationships. For example, mobile cellular phones and communication towers that can be moved into a disaster area immediately to restore lost communications and speed disaster recovery are vital.
Q: Preparation to better handle a crisis is important. What are your best strategies for preparation?
A: We have been working with very proactive groups, the governors of the western states, for example, to inventory and assess all of the available resources in the area. Most disaster planning focuses on “our resources” and that is a mistake. It is important to recognize “what’s missing” and look outside your domain (organization, city, state) while planning. Having contingency plans in place and knowing where to find needed resources when your own resources are not available are critical for preparation.
Q: How best should enterprise security executives approach the involvement of their CEOs in disaster management?
A: The best way to get the top-level decision-makers to buy in is by getting them to focus on what they need to do. They need to care about protecting their business and that means caring about their employees because they are the business. The security executive should focus on “how to do it” vs. “why to do it” and show what the organization will achieve by moving forward -- namely securing its business.
Q: What types of training are necessary and who should be involved in that training at agencies and enterprises?
A: Training is very important. Wal-Mart, as an example, is interesting. All security and emergency management personnel should be trained. There are bachelor and master degree programs emerging across the country. Wal-Mart’s has a placement program for these professionals. I had the opportunity to speak with some of their employees and they are bringing knowledge, skill and the use of technologies to Wal-Mart and adding great value to their security programs.
Q: What role does technology play in disaster management?
A: Well, its role is increasing. We encourage government agencies to reach out to the private sector for solutions. Technology is increasing the rate of change for security solutions. These new solutions are more efficient and increase readiness, thereby mitigating risk. We have solutions in place that identify when someone is out of contact, where they are located and we are able to send a response team. I have seen new technology applications save lives. Those involved in disaster management need to stay abreast and consider the possible contribution of new technology.
Q: What’s coming over the horizon relative to risk management and disaster management?
A: We did a cost analysis study and found that for every dollar spent on risk mitigation, five dollars are saved on disaster recovery. That’s pretty significant. It saves lives, too. For any government or business not to realize that it’s an investment and not just a cost is important. Those economics mean you have to take risk mitigation very seriously by investing in emergency planning, disaster recovery and security. Many universities, municipalities and states are now aggressively seeking risk management strategies and solutions and we see this proactive planning continuing, even increasing.
Q: You are a key player with the International Code Council. Is new construction reflecting the new threats, especially with commercial buildings?
A: I have been the CEO for three years and the International Code Council is a proponent of stronger building codes. The I-Codes are adopted at the state or local level in 48 states making them the code of choice in more than 15,000 communities. New adoptions are being reported to us all the time. New York City is in the process of adopting the International Building Code and International Fire Code with implementation expected next year. California also is in the process of adopting I-Codes with a target date of 2008. It has been noted in Florida, and other hurricane-prone areas, that newer buildings built to I-Codes, or codes based on the I-Codes, withstand the storms with much less damage than older buildings built to older codes. The Code Council’s code development process, which is public, allows for all interested parties to contribute to the development of safer buildings for the future.
Q: Public safety is really a matter of diverse private and public organizations working together. How is that cooperation working out?
A: Eighty-five percent of the critical infrastructure is in the hands of the private sector. More private sector involvement is needed than in the past. Public leaders and elected officials should be reaching out to the private sector to collaborate and seek solutions.
Q: What are the positive synergies of the bringing together of JLWA and GlobalOptions?
A: Global Options provides an investment into our company that allows us to broaden our services and work more quickly on risk mitigation issues. It allows us to provide all types of services and partner with other security firms that are part of GlobalOptions. So it allows us to operate as James Lee Witt Company and leverage the benefits of being a bigger company.
Q: What have we learned so far from the Katrina event?
A: First, as a result of Katrina, disaster planning is being taken far more seriously than before it struck. We learned that contingency planning -- not one level of contingency but many levels -- are necessary to save lives and speed recovery. I also feel strongly that FEMA’s ability to respond was impaired under Homeland Security and that it should be repurposed as its own organization. v