Expert Interview With Rich Serino, Emergency Management Expert

Taking a holistic approach to planning for, responding to, and recovering from disasters and bolstering community resilience
Oct 9, 2017 9:00 AM ET

Tetra Tech Experts

Rich Serino has more than 40 years of federal, state, and local emergency management and emergency medical services experience. Mr. Serino was appointed as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Deputy Administrator in October 2009. In this role, he worked directly with Administrator Craig Fugate to promote the “whole community” approach to emergency management, which seeks to build, sustain, and improve the agency’s capacity to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards. Mr. Serino focused on improving FEMA programs by emphasizing financial accountability, improving the use of analytics to drive decisions, advancing the workforce, and fostering a culture of innovation. Under Mr. Serino’s leadership, FEMA championed initiatives such as FEMA Corps, FEMA Stat, the FEMA Think Tank, a detailed budgetary process, and a Disaster Workforce Transformation.

He previously served as Chief and Assistant Director of the Boston Public Health Commission, bolstering the city’s response plans for major emergencies, including chemical, biological, and radiological attacks. He has served as an incident commander for more than 40 mass casualty incidents. Mr. Serino has also been a National Faculty Member of the Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Preparedness Program since 1998.

How has emergency management evolved over your career?

Emergency management has become, truly, a profession. For years emergency management was looked at as just a few people that did it as a second or a third career. Now people are looking at emergency management truly as a career with a lot of academic rigor behind it. You can get bachelors, masters, even PhDs in Homeland Security and Emergency Management. The key is how you take the academic education that people are getting and put it together with true experience.

How have clients’ needs changed over the past 10 or 20 years?

Clients both in the government realm and in the private sector have different expectations as things become more complex with climate change and engineering needs. They realize that you have to integrate emergency management into almost everything.

To look at emergency management holistically, you have to consider how you can integrate the mitigation process. Good mitigation is going to help you with recovery and in wrapping up the cycle that is part of preparedness. Clients now not only see that, they demand it—to have that complete cycle.

How has the focus shifted from post-disaster recovery, to response, to pre-disaster mitigation and resilience?

For years we have prepared for response, which is essential. But in the last couple of years, we have begun a lot of preparation for recovery. The amount of money that is spent on response efforts is dwarfed by the amount of money and time that is spent on recovery.

Preparing for recovery involves good engineering and mitigation—doing it ahead of time and not waiting for the disaster. We also have begun to educate students in engineering and design on how you can design entire communities—not just buildings, but communities—to be resilient. An example would be putting parklands in areas that are prone to floods. You can design it to help mitigate some of the problems that happen with flooding. And that same park could be designed to serve as a community space in post-disaster recovery—for example with solar power that people could use to charge cell phones and enable ongoing communication.

You cannot just look at one part or piece of this. You have to look across all the different parts that contribute to a truly resilient community as you plan for response, recovery, and obviously with mitigation and preparedness.

How can engineers and architects consider emergency management resiliency concepts in their work and projects to support community and infrastructure resilience?

I think that one of the things that engineers, architects, and designers have to look at is the community as a whole. Quite often people look at the design of a building or a park, but how does the community actually fit into that—and how can they bring the community in, listen to the community, and understand the fabric and needs of the community long before disaster strikes? If you understand the community ahead of time, disaster response and recovery is going to go much smoother.

For years we have talked about how for every dollar you spend on mitigation saves at least four in recovery. I actually think in some cases the long-term savings realized is significantly more than that you spend on mitigation strategies. And having worked at both city and federal government combined for more than 40 years, I understand the budget challenge. To take a dollar out of the day-to-day operating budget to use for mitigation is not an easy thing to do. But people have to understand that it is going to have a significant impact.

After Hurricanes Irene and Sandy happened, a lot of people up and down the East Coast—not just New York and New Jersey—are realizing mitigation is a real issue that they have to look at. In New York, some financial institutions and businesses that did a little bit of preparation were only out of business for a couple of days. The ones that didn’t do it were out of business for months and lost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The little bit of investment in creating a resilient community now will save tens and millions of dollars later on. And more importantly, it’s going to save lives as well.

What are the hazards or threats that you believe will drive the emergency management industry in the coming years?

I think it’s going to be multifaceted, and I think climate change is going to be a driver. We are seeing the sea level rise in many parts of the country. And the vast population moving to the cities, not just in the United States, but worldwide. This higher density is going to present a challenge going forward.

A lot of these are going to be predictable crises and challenges for emergency management. In one part of the country we have sea level rise; in the other half of the country we are seeing drought and heat waves. I think our challenge will be to look at the environmental changes that are happening and how communities are going to be able to respond to that.

What differentiates Tetra Tech from our competitors in the emergency management market?

The way that we have evolved over the last 10 years in terms of the growing the practice, adding additional expertise, and basically looking at all of the issues that we can address and our clients' problems. We evaluate all projects through that prism of the evolution of the emergency management life cycle—not through the singular lens of response, or preparedness, or mitigation, or whatever that issue happens to be. We use a holistic approach.

Tetra Tech has 13,000 practitioners and professionals in more than 100 different disciplines. A lot of firms are limited in terms of their bandwidth to deliver specific expertise, or a specific background, or a professional to meet a need. We are very nimble and very interested in finding that expertise in-house and delivering it to the customer in a timely and cost-effective manner.

What technological advances have you seen in emergency management over the last several years that have improved public safety?

The one that pops to mind immediately is that the thing that used to be called the telephone that everybody carries with them is really a minicomputer, a camera, and a communications device. As the technology changes going forward, it’s going to be the tool that everybody has, not just the emergency managers. Anybody who is a little bit savvy can get the data on an incident that is happening—through searches, Twitter, Facebook—that only emergency managers have had in the past.

We recently had the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. If as many people had smartphones then as now, we could have had GPS when they were calling for help and we’d know exactly where they were. Now in a disaster if people are tweeting out pictures with significant information, we could have the GPS coordinates of where they are.