Calm between storm seasons is innovation time at FEMA

On this week's edition of Agency of the Month, Rich Serino, deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), joins Federal News Rad...

(Courtesy of FEMA)

“Snowpocalypses” notwithstanding, winter often provides a lull for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But that doesn’t mean FEMA isn’t busy. Right now, its staff is finishing up its evaluation of the 2012 hurricane season and gearing up for 2013.

And FEMA has a lot to work with – from the “innovation teams” at Superstorm Sandy, to the FEMA Corps and social media.

“We’re in the middle of, specifically, for Superstorm Sandy, of doing an after- action report, for how FEMA did internally, as well as a much larger one,” said FEMA Deputy Administrator Rich Serino on Agency of the Month. “We actually started that process during the response.”

Real-time Innovation

That drive to evaluate during a response brought about the Innovation Team, which deployed for the first time during Sandy. It’s a multi-sector team comprising government, nonprofit and business groups designed to “come in…and find creative solutions to real-world problems in real time,” Serino said.

In Red Hook, N.Y., the team soon found there was a great need for Internet connectivity, and the standard hard lines FEMA brought were not enough. The team was able to quickly partner with stakeholders to build a strong wi-fi network within 48 hours, specifically targeting it to a popular courtyard area.

Next, the teams went door-to-door with iPads hooked up to a satellite link it established.

“As a result, the Internet was traveling door-to-door in neighborhoods throughout the city, allowing survivors to register for assistance from their own homes” before power had been re-established, Serino said in a recent blog post.

FEMA is working with the Department of Homeland Security’s Science & Technology Directorate and the Defense Department on how to grow and deploy Innovations more disaster areas.

Long-term Innovation

The 2012 hurricane season also saw the deployment of the new FEMA Corps, a volunteer corps of young people focused on disaster preparedness, response and recovery.

The project is a partnership with the Corporation for National and Community Service and AmeriCorps and sends volunteers to live in communities recovering from a disaster for a longer-term response. Terms last 10 to 24 months.

Currently, only 400 of a planned 1,600 volunteers have been trained, but once fully deployed, it could save up to $60 million a year.

Social Innovation

FEMA is also getting better at using social media in its response, Serino said.

“[It’s] another tool in the toolbox. But it’s not just communicating to them, it’s listening to them as well,” he said.

FEMA is also getting better at tuning in to the right tweets and posts and tuning out rumors, Serino said. Twitter and Facebook posts that include images, videos or a location are better tools. The same goes when multiple people are reporting something en masse.

“You get one thing that says one thing, but when you get a thousand that say something else, that’s good enough for me, when you get a thousand things all saying the same thing of what’s really going on,” he said.


Richard Serino began serving as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s deputy administrator in October 2009. In this role, he works directly with Administrator Craig Fugate to build, sustain, and improve the department’s capacity to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards.

Serino brings 35 years of state and local emergency management and emergency medical services experience to his position at FEMA.

Prior to his appointment as deputy administrator, he served as chief of Boston EMS and assistant director of the Boston Public Health Commission. In that role, he bolstered the city’s response plans for major emergencies, including chemical, biological, and radiological attacks. He also led citywide planning for H1N1 influenza.

Serino has served as an Incident Commander for over 35 mass casualty incidents and for all of Boston’s major planned events, including the Boston Marathon, Boston’s Fourth of July celebration, First Night, and the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Serino began working for Boston EMS in 1973. Over the years, he rose through the ranks and in 1999 became Chief of Department. During his tenure as chief, he saw the agency expand and improve to become nationally recognized for the first rate services provided by the agency’s EMTs and paramedics.

Since 1998, Serino has been a national faculty member for the Domestic Preparedness Program. He was an original contributing member for the Defense Department’s Domestic Preparedness Training Program and Metropolitan Medical Response System. Serino has been involved, since its inception, with the Lessons Learned Information Sharing network for emergency responders.

As a consultant to the Pentagon and the Defense Department, Serino served on the 9/11 after-action team to assess medical consequence management policies and procedures.

Serino attended Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government Senior Executives in State and Local Government program in 2000, completed the Kennedy School’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative in 2005, and recently graduated from the Executive Leadership Program, Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School.

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