For the past month, the Albany Joint Field Office has hosted Presidential Management Fellow Susanna Marking. The PMF Program was established by an Executive Order in 1977 to attract outstanding graduate students from a variety of academic disciplines into federal government careers -- especially those who have a commitment to public service and leadership. FEMA heavily supports the program, and has hired more than 25 fellows in the past two years.
As a PMF assigned to FEMA where “everyone is an emergency manager,” Susanna must complete a variety of training and developmental requirements, including a 30-day deployment to a Joint Field Office. We sat down with Susanna to learn about her experience at the Albany JFO.
Q: Other FEMA PMFs have deployed in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, when there was a lot of activity. What has it been like to experience a JFO during the close-out process of a disaster?
“I actually feel fortunate to come during the calmer period because it grants me time to learn about the programs and sections that are outside of my own area [External Affairs]. I had the opportunity to join a voluntary agency liaison in the field, watch the [Geographic Information Systems] mapping process, join meetings with the state, observe meetings with [Public Assistance] applicants, and so much more. I also witnessed real-life relationships between FEMA, the state, and local officials.
Prior to arriving, I had completed the online trainings and read about FEMA programs, but it wasn’t entirely clear to me until I saw our programs in action at the JFO. If I had been deployed during the peak of the disaster, I would not have been able to gain such a well-rounded experience about what our agency accomplishes.”
Q: You were assigned to External Affairs while you were here. Tell us about what you learned!
“External Affairs is what I do at HQ, but I had a limited idea of what EA dealt with at a JFO. Since being here, I’ve learned about the type of hot issues that arise at the field level and how we build our messages for elected officials, media and the general public. I also learned a great deal about the politics that come into play and the communication challenges associated with that.”
Q: What was your favorite experience?
“One afternoon I went on a couple housing visits with Isabella from DHOPS [Direct Housing Operations]. We visited two separate disaster survivors who were still living in temporary housing units. The first survivor brought Isabella and I into the [temporary housing unit, or THU] for a quick chat and then welcomed us to walk up the hill to her Irene-damaged home. She proudly showed Isabella around the house – including a new kitchen and fresh paint on new walls – demonstrating the progress she and her husband have made in rebuilding their home.
The second survivor opened the door to his THU and greeted Isabella with open arms, eager to show her the new home his family was going to buy. They also talked for several minutes about their pet birds, long commutes, and other topics. As they chatted, I noticed that among the papers on their desk was a large sticky note with Isabella’s name and phone number – a clear indication of the importance of this FEMA employee in their lives, and the trusting relationship this family had developed with Isabella over time.
These housing visits were the most rewarding experiences while I was at the JFO. Right before my eyes was a real-life example of the impact one caring individual FEMA employee can have on a survivor.”
Q: Are there any lessons or knowledge you’ll take back with you to Headquarters? “For one thing, I learned about the tough issues we face. Our agency has its challenges and problems, but I saw time and time again that folks at this JFO do their best to offer what they can to find a solution. FCO Phil Parr also taught me that while everyone always wants to so much for letting me observe and learn from you. All of these experiences will help me do my current job better and become a well-rounded FEMA employee throughout my career. I’m looking forward to another deployment and using my new knowledge on the next disaster.”
Susanna’s deployment ended on July 12 and she has returned to her regular position at FEMA’s Office of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C.