The security measures undertaken for the Papal visit were unprecedented, resulting from months of planning, meeting, and coordinating to keep both his Holiness and pilgrims, onlookers, and visitors safe. Only a few previous Popes have visited the United States, and throughout his tour of Washington, D.C., New York, and Philadelphia, Pope Francis has left an indelible impression on all who have seen him. His address to Congress was the first by a Pope, and his actions, compassion, and words have moved many who have seen him. As a National Special Security Event (NSSE), the Pope’s visit has been anything but ordinary.
Two FEMA Regions. Three geographic locations. Multiple venues. Countless Federal, State and local agencies and departments synchronizing efforts in 24-hour operations. It worked due to a true partnership between Region II, Region III, and the Office of the National Capital Region Coordination (ONCRC). As just one example of the complexity and effective coordination, Region II deployed their IMAT team to NJ Regional Operations and Intelligence Center (ROIC). The IMAT team physically remained in New Jersey, Region II’s jurisdiction, but was under the operational control of Region III RRCC. Not ordinary. But it worked seamlessly.
When the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security designates an event to be an NSSE, FEMA takes on the pivotal role of leading consequence management actions. We plan, train, and coordinate through numerous committees and subcommittees to ensure we are prepared for any potential incident in full harmony with our partners. All of this takes place leading up to the visit. But there are still some things you don’t quite expect, nor quite know how to put into words. Pope Francis going off script at the Festival of Families to connect to the audience, the world. His blessing of the children, whether the young boy with cerebral palsy at Philadelphia Airport or the little girl who broke through the barrier in DC to give him a hug. In every sense of the word, he leaves people in awe.
There is a humbling juxtaposition between job performance and witnessing history.
Although this event is business for FEMA Region III, as it was for HQ and Region II during the prior stages of his visit, it still provided unique opportunities. For one of our staff who was positioned near the parade route, the opportunity to go out and see the Pope in person, mere feet away but smiling, waving, and blessing people as he passed makes a lasting impression. Words don’t necessarily do it justice. And, perhaps, words cannot capture the sacrifices that emergency managers and responders make at all levels, often behind the scenes.
Yet, just as the multitudes who saw and listened to Pope Francis will depart with a little bit more inside than they had before they arrived, so too will the emergency management team exit this activation with a little bit more. We exercised our deployments. We practiced our reports. We rehearsed our conference calls. We expanded our network of public and private sector responders. As a nation, we are better for the Pope’s visit. As emergency managers, we are stronger and more capable from the activation. Not your ordinary activation.