EMWeekly 9: Team Rubicon with Amanda Burke
[TODD] Hi, this is Todd DeVoe with EM Weekly, and today we have Amanda Burke, from Team Rubicon here with us. And it’s exciting to have her here, and a couple of things about her that I like; she’s a former Marine, and as a Navy Corpsman, I always like hanging out with my Marines, and that’s why I like Amanda too, so. So, Amanda, tell us a little about yourself and how you got involved with emergency management, and Team Rubicon, and what your role is now.
[AMANDA BURKE] All right. So, my name is Amanda Burke, it’s great to meet everybody, I guess. So, I’m a Marine Corps vet, I was in the Marine Corps for four years, and I did Intelligence. I did reserves for a little bit after that, but I have since kind of gotten away from that. I bounced around in the corporate field for a little bit, doing government consulting, and emergency management, and now I’m lucky enough to work for an organization called Team Rubicon, where we are a disaster response organization, and we obviously work in the emergency management field. And I manage region 3, which is the Mid-Atlantic region, so… from Pennsylvania down to Virginia, and from West Virginia over on East to Delaware, and I manage all of our readiness and response functions within that region.
[TODD] That’s great. And I know you’ve gone to, and have involved with a few of the larger scale disasters, or events that we’ve had here lately. So, what are the biggest challenges that you see on emergency management and emergency response?
[AMANDA BURKE] Great question. I think, honestly, at least my personal challenges with it… I think it’s a relatively new field, and not a lot of people know how to operate with each other. I was essentially introduced to the emergency management field in 2013, when I started volunteering with Team Rubicon, and went to the Philippines to support our response to typhoon Haiyan. And I’ve had military experience, which is very similar to the way that the field is broken down, in terms of command and control, and execution, and other things. But it was still a new field for me, so coordinating with other international partners or the local partners was still a challenge. So, I’d say that’s one of the challenges faced within the emergency management community.
[TODD] So, do you think that the challenges on the international response are similar to the challenges of a domestic response? I know that, for instance, the superstorm Sandy and Katrina, both of those were getting assets from all over the country, and I know that there were some logistical issues with moving people around. What is that like, compare those types of storms to something like a typhoon over at the Philippines.
[AMANDA BURKE] Yeah, I think the challenges are similar, but they get more complex. At least for us, at least. Or for anybody that’s coming into the area. Domestically, hurricane Sandy and Katrina, I was not on those, but I… based on my experience on smaller or local responses here in Region 3, I can only imagine the complexity of people… new organizations coming in and trying to support, finding out who is in charge, what are people are covering, what homeowners have been assisted, and which ones haven’t, and what the main priorities are. It’s just… you know, a very small start to coordinating response. And then, internationally it’s the same thing, but I think it’s a little more complex, because you’re trying to figure out who is in charge as well, you know, you immediately have hundreds, literally, of response agents coming in and trying to do good, and trying to help the community; but if you have too many, and they’re not talking to each other, and they’re conflicting priorities, then it actually becomes more of a challenge in itself. And you end up focusing more on the collaboration, I think, than actually assisting the community. So you have to figure out… you know, who to talk to, who’s doing that, and how to make the biggest impact that way.
[TODD] Yeah, it’s true, too. I guess it’s some of the same stuff here. One of the things that we try to do, domestically, is have those priorities in a disaster, so we know who’s doing what, before we stand patch to patch, you know, on the disaster ground, that we know who’s doing what and what the rules are. I guess that it’s not like that as you go along on international response, huh?
[AMANDA BURKE] Yeah, and the goal is kind of the same thing. You become… my experience is relatively new, and Team Rubicon is relatively new, so we’re not… you know, we’re still developing those relationships. I think the ultimate goal, no matter where you are, whether that’s here in Washington D.C, or Richmond, Virginia, or the Philippines, you want to have relationships and contacts, and have worked with the local emergency management partners before you go in, because that’s the… that’s the way that you’re going to be more effective at responding. It’s definitely building the relationships, understanding who does what, so when you get on the ground, it’s less coordination and more execution to respond.
[TODD] Right. Well, what are some of the challenges, as far as getting in front of domestic emergency managers… I’ll say the… I mean, local county state, or whatever the hell you need to get to. I mean, I know that we’ve worked within the VOADs and the COADs, but I mean… sometimes those organizations are sometimes a little… kind of difficult to get through as well. But what are… how do you guys break that barrier?
[AMANDA BURKE] Yeah, I mean, it varies honestly by each state, by each county, by each city. It also varies by how involved those cities, counties, states… are actually involved in preparedness and emergency management. So, you know, in some of the more developed areas, where the VOAD is relatively active, it’s relatively easy. Virginia is a great example, where the Virginia Department of Emergency Management works very, very well with the VOAD in that area, and that trickles on down to the different counties and districts; and so, we have a great relationship with leaders of those organizations. But then we also maintain relationships with the local emergency management officials, whether that’s… you know, the official EM of the Police Department or Fire Department, I think it’s important to not just build a relationship with one specific entity, it’s to make sure you’re hitting all of those fronts. And then it gets a bit more challenging when you get into areas… Pennsylvania is a great example, where they’re broken down… some areas might not be as active, and some counties are not coordinating with each other, so you have to figure out who is talking to who, and you kind of get and explain what your capabilities are, and what you can do, so… it can be a little challenging as you get down to the more local level, trying to figure out who is active, and who’s not.
[TODD] Is it… I mean… it’s a light loaded question, but I’m trying to figure out how to phrase it. I mean, is it hard to stay out of those internal politics, or that type of stuff, as a non-profit organization trying to do stuff, or is it easy… I mean, I was just trying to think that… I know, specifically, from my experience between city and between agencies, sometimes, in the same city, there’s politics. I can’t imagine what it’s like for a non-profit to try and jump into the middle of some of that stuff.
[AMANDA BURKE] Yeah, I will say that luckily, at least from my experience, it’s been really easy to stay on the politics. Because for us, at least, it’s not about the politics, it’s about our mission. We are a disaster response organization, that unites our skills and experience as first responders and military veterans to rapidly deploy emergency response teams. So, whenever there is potentially a conflict of interest, or a potential political relationship there, we kind of steer clear of that, and we’re very focused on: “here is the capabilities we can provide, here is how we can provide them, here is when we can provide them, here is how quickly we could get there, and here is the impact we can have”. So I think that’s the way to do it, it’s not about the politics; it’s really about building the relationships and focusing on the impact that you can have in the community, and trying to stay out of that.
[TODD] Yeah, I know that sometimes… as professional emergency managers, for lack of a better term, the city and state counties sometimes are too big and too bold for our own good, and we can’t get our own way sometimes, so it’s nice to have… to be able to lean on some volunteer organizations. And I even know from personal experience, working… trying to pull some people in for some of our large-scale fires that we’ve had here in the West Coast, and working amongst those groups, and sometimes we have to check ourselves in the EOC, and say: “hey, these people are here to try to help us out, they’re not trying to take away anything”, so…
[AMANDA BURKE] Yeah, and I think that’s also important as a non-profit, to remember that… or any other agency, whether it’s the city, non-profit, or even a business, is that when you’re going in to help, your focus and mission is just a small piece of the pie. When you talk about like, wild fires or even larger disasters, what you’re doing in one area has a greater impact, and other people have other bosses, and there’s a bigger picture that they’re aware of. So I think, you know, as much as you want to stay out of politics, it’s still important to remember that people are considering 15 million other things, while you’re focusing on one piece of the pie. So you have to be aware of that when you’re going in.
[TODD] Yeah, that’s for sure. So, what lessons have you learned, and you’re able to implement, as far as going into the vets, and what can the whole community of emergency managers and emergency responders take away from some of these lessons that you’ve gone through? Either as an organization, or you guys yourselves?
[AMANDA BURKE] You know, that’s a great question. I think it narrows down to the buzz words that everybody typically uses. You know, definitely preparedness, and that includes not only just, you know, learning ICS and collaborating with partners, but it’s also because we are an organization that relies on volunteer leaders and volunteers coming in to assist, it’s about getting them trained and engaged beforehand, so that the first time that we’re seeing them, is not only to respond to a disaster; we know who they are, we know what they’re capable of, and we know what to expect when they get there. And the other thing is to, you know, make sure that you have your best meters on the ground. I think it’s easy to kind of get lost in things when you’re there, moral can get low, because coordination of the things can make an impact on what… how you’re effectively operating on the area and other things. So making sure you have good leaders that are there to support your team and coordinate with other partners. I guess those are the two buzzword lessons that I’ve learned throughout the years.
[TODD] And that’s great, that’s so true. What kind of leadership development does Team Rubicon do with their leaders?
[AMANDA BURKE] So, we have a few different avenues for that. Obviously, we have the more professional development of the ICS courses, so we do… you know, leaders through ICS 300 and 400, and encourage them to go out and get their textbooks for other general staff positions. Internally, we have a fellowship, called the Clay Hunt Fellowship Program, that is designed for our leaders to, basically, go through a year-long leadership development, where it’s broken down into three sections; the first section is when they spend about four months focusing on themselves as leaders, you know, what are your strengths, what are your opportunities, how do you react to situations, and how do you continue to grow yourself? And then the second aspect is learning more about the organization, and then the third section of that is actually doing a capstone project with the organization. So they take everything they’ve learned from those previous eight months, and incorporate it into a department of the organization, and they have the opportunity to essentially develop not only themselves, but a piece of the organization, to make us better at responding to disasters. So… that’s another aspect. And then, internally within each region, we have leadership development opportunities within the positions that they hold, so… you know, we have about 70 staff members, and the rest of our organization and our operations are actually run by volunteer leaders. So the guys have their full-time jobs, and you come out and support the team in their free time. We have about 400 volunteer leaders who run those things, and a lot of the leadership development for those positions is done through direct mentorship. So, if someone takes a leadership role, and a more senior leader will come in and mentor them through the emergency management project, and also understanding what it is that they want to get out of this position, and helping them achieve that.
[TODD] That is good stuff right there. So, real quick, for those… I mean, this is kind of an odd question coming for you, because I understand it greatly, but I want to share this with everybody else. Can you explain the Clay Hunt Fellowship, and who Clay Hunt is, and why he was so important to Team Rubicon?
[AMANDA BURKE] Yeah, absolutely. So Clay was one of the original members of the team of aid, so Jake Wood and William McNulty were actually co-founders, but Clay was Jake’s best friend and joined them when they were down in Haiti, and helped defining the organization from the very beginning, and was very influential in the development of the organization for the first couple of years. He was very focused on the service, encouraged everybody that he knew to… you know, just because you take off the uniform doesn’t mean you’re done serving, and encouraged everybody to continue focused on serving others, whether they were in the uniform or out of the uniform. In 2011, Clay took his own life, and that actually created a huge shift within the organization, from an operational standpoint, and even from a cultural standpoint. So we shifted our operations from solely international opportunities to domestic opportunities. There’s more disasters that happen every day here, and we wanted to provide more opportunities for veterans to get involved domestically to serve their communities, because it helps provide a sense of purpose community and self-worth, by being able to serve those at home. So that was… so Clay’s death shifted our focus there to impact more veterans here at home. And even culturally, it made a little bit of a shift for us to make sure that yes, we’re focused on the mission, but it’s really about the people that were asking to serve as well. We make sure that we provide them with opportunities to engage in between disasters, because they can get purpose at home through other means and connecting with people. So, we’ve incorporated the Clay Hunt Fellowship to kind of take that spirit that Clay had for the sense of service, and try to continue that throughout the organization.
[TODD] That’s awesome. I want to kind of follow up with that quick, Clay Hunt. And this is something that I’ve actually seen work through the Team Rubicon, that work is the assist program, and how realistically, that the members of Team Rubicon, with each other, are really there for helping each other. Can you explain the assist program, why it got started with Team Rubicon, and how it’s implemented, and… any success stories with that?
[AMANDA BURKE] Yeah, absolutely. So, the assist program, it stands for applied suicide intervention skills training; it is a two-day workshop that is actually designed by another organization, called Living Works, and we reached out to them and started incorporating the training into our organization, because one thing we found, even prior and post to Clay’s death is that a lot of our members were more likely to reach out to each other in times of crisis or need, after they’ve gone through response with each other. Because you know, you live, breathe, eat, and work besides somebody, you develop a close bond. So, a lot of our members were receiving crisis calls from volunteers at different points, and they didn’t necessarily know how to handle it. So, we adopted the assist program, which is a 2-day suicide intervention program. It essentially walks anybody… so you don’t have experience in that at all, whether you’re a veteran or civilian. It walks you through how to identify that somebody might be thinking of suicide, or just having suicidal thoughts or actions, or being in a low place. So how do I identify those indications, how to directly ask somebody the question whether they’re considering suicide or not, and then finding ways to get them the support that they need. So that is the 2-day program. Today, I don’t have the exact numbers off the top of my head, but I know it’s over 400 members that we’ve trained and assisted over the last two and a half years, and the result that we’ve seen… we don’t keep track of specific cases, or names, or anything like that, but as someone who is a part of the program, and on the receiving end of a lot of these calls, about three years ago we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in the number of cases that have resulted in either the actual action of suicide, or on folks not knowing how to handle the situation. So I… they’ve been handled in a more local level, which is the actual goal. I would rather somebody who lives down the street received a phone call, so they can go check on them, then somebody who is four, five states away. So we’ve seen a more localized response in terms of people taking care of each other in that aspect, and it’s been pretty successful. The other thing that we incorporated in addition to the assist program, it’s incorporated wellness managers. So, there are certified mental health professionals who are volunteers with a given hour, and they’re essentially Team Rubicon volunteers who work in the region and state leadership team to service consultancy when somebody does reach out. So, if I received a phone call from a volunteer who was considering suicide, or just looking for somebody to talk to, I would reach out to my wellness manager, and she would help connect that person with a free service in that area that they can connect with and get help.
[TODD] That’s awesome. I know that’s one of the things that it has been successful for a few people, so that’s so powerful right there, that Team Rubicon is already doing. Even outside of the disaster response world. One more question regarding some of the stuff that Team Rubicon does, there are fundraisings… well, it’s a non-profit, and Team Rubicon needs to get funding from other organizations and individuals. So if you want to donate, Team Rubicon is a great place to send money, I know that… full disclosure, that’s where a lot of my money goes, as far as my donations go. And I tap on my family as well, so they donate as well. So, if you want to donate, you can go ahead and donate, I do encourage it. But there are other things too, that you can do to get involved. Like the Runners One program, and other physical activities like that. Can you talk a little bit about those?
[AMANDA BURKE] Yeah, absolutely. So, Runners One is a run that was actually founded… I mean, it’s got a few different stories of its origination, but it was about four years ago that we started doing Runners One, and one of the main things is that it was in support of Clay, who again, was very influential in the organization, and he was actively involved with the Wounded Warrior project. Actually, I think they might have added Wounded Warrior project later, because we’re now partners with them. Anyway, on the original founding members of Team Rubicon and The Mission Continues, and it was an opportunity that we took to bring those organizations together, that are taking veterans and getting them out, and celebrating collaboration amongst the community. So, Runners One is a run that takes place this year, I think, in over 170 different locations; and I think it was over 5,000 folks that came out. And the beauty of Runners One is, although there are specific locations that we do host larger events, you can run anywhere. So, if you’re in another city location that it’s just you, you can get out and do a 3-mile jog and you’re still running with the rest of the community. You can also fundraise while you’re doing it, which is a great thing. But really, it’s about collaborating and building that community with other partners, and other veterans and civilians in the space. And the Tough Mudder is a relatively new partnership, it just… I think we just announced it at the end of last year. So, I mean, if you haven’t heard of Tough Mudder, I have not run one yet, I’m a little bit scared, I’m going to be honest… you know, I went through a bunch of obstacles and got yelled at when I was in Marine Corp, I wouldn’t volunteer my time to do that again. But it’s a great event, they have full Tough Mudders and half Tough Mudders, and they range in different size and scale, but it’s essentially jogging, going through different obstacles, and it’s a team that’s all around the country. From Team Rubicon’s standpoint, we are now a national partner with them, over the next two years, and we set up different events throughout the country. So, we’re going to have, as an example, there’s a Tough Mudder in Philadelphia on May 20th, and we will have volunteers that are running in the event. We have 20 tickets for our volunteers to run the full Tough Mudder, and then we’ll set a tent event outside. So, whether you actually want to get physical and get dirty, or if you just want to hang out with the team and see the story of Team Rubicon, there’s different options for you. But you know, it’s a team building event for us, but it’s also a fundraising opportunity for sure. You don’t have to, it’s not required, but individuals do have the option to create their own fundraising page, and kind of get competitive with each other and try to raise money for the organization.
[TODD] That’s great. So, before we ask the last question, if anybody wants to get a hold of you, or Team Rubicon, or join, how would they do that?
[AMANDA BURKE] So you can always go to our website, which is TeamRubiconUSA.org. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter, if you just type “Team Rubicon”, it will come up. And you can always e-mail to my e-mail address is email@example.com; I can direct you to whatever you’re looking for, or there is the office phone number as well, that you can find on the website. So, a bunch of different ways that you can get involved with the organization.
[TODD] That’s great. And do you have to be a veteran to join Team Rubicon?
[AMANDA BURKE] You do not. You can see it in our mission statement, we have veterans, we have first responders, and kickass civilians, it’s what we like to call them. And our typical… our breakdown of membership is about 70% veteran and 30% first responders and civilians. So, we’d love to have anybody that wants to come out and serve the community.
[TODD] That’s awesome. And one thing too is, I know I’ve heard this question, “Todd, is hard to get involved with… it’s hard to get a job in emergency management”, and volunteering with organization like Team Rubicon is a great way to get started. So there’s a lot of opportunity there for you, even if you are a kickass civilian, as they call it.
[AMANDA BURKE] Yeah, we’ve had a lot of guys who… specifically here, in region 3, who I think… four people, actually… six people, off the top of my head, that I’ve gotten positions with emergency management over the last year because of what they’ve done with Team Rubicon. So it’s definitely a good way to get experience to get into the field.
[TODD] That’s great. So, Amanda, last question, it’s going to be the toughest question of the day. So, what book, or website, or reading, or whatever, would you recommend to someone who wants to get involved in emergency management, Team Rubicon, disaster response in general?
[AMANDA BURKE] So, I have a great answer to that question. I knew you were going to ask me, because you told me before we jumped on. But honestly, my favorite types of books to read are about history, like civil war history, or about specific leaders, what they did… more about them, and how they handled certain actions to learn what they did and what they didn’t do. And so, the recent one that I read was actually “Rebel Yell”, which is a great book. I definitely recommend reading that, because what you learn in the history books isn’t always what actually happens. So, I guess that’s the answer to your question.
[TODD] That’s actually good answer, because looking back at what past leaders have done, you’re going to glean something from those people, so… especially successful generals, and Custer was a really successful field general, so there’s a lot to take away from him, that’s for sure.
[AMANDA BURKE] Yeah. He was definitely into politics too, which I did not know. So it’s very interesting to learn about his interactions, and how they were different as a field leader and as a non-field leader. So, it’s got some good lessons learned in there.
[TODD] Yeah, I read some of it somewhere, maybe it was in a book, that he wanted… that people were trying to push him to be a president? Did you read that too, or am I not correct?
[AMANDA BURKE] I didn’t see that in there. He was trying to elevate his status in multiple ways, so it wouldn’t surprise me if that was the case.
[TODD] Yeah, I think I saw that in the History Channel, or something like that. But you know… but anyway, Amanda, thank you so much for being here. Thank you for those great answers, I’m looking forward to hear from you again, and maybe someday I’ll see you on the big one.
[AMANDA BURKE] Awesome, sounds good. Thank you for your time.
[TODD] Bye bye.