Local Government, Federal Relations, Intergovernmental Affairs, and Women in Emergency Management

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Irene Conforti  0:00 

Hi and welcome to EM Student. This is your host Irene Conforti.

We will be having Todd DeVoe on the podcast periodically, and he’s still the host of the beloved EM Weekly, which I encourage you to also check out and enjoy.

For our first interview, we are going to be talking to miss Jennifer Corvino, who is the President and owner of Simon and Company.

Hi, Jen, how are you today?

Jen Covino  0:33 

I’m great. How are you doing?

Irene Conforti  0:35 

I’m doing well. So I’m wondering if you can speak a little bit about the work you do assigning company.

Jen Covino  0:42 

Alright, so just to sort of explain my job, Simon, and company is a boutique Intergovernmental Affairs firm. And it is our role and responsibility to provide federal affairs assistance to the units of local government we represent. So our clients include cities, counties, special district governments, transit agencies, housing authorities, and even a school district. And so we provide insights and guidance to them as they navigate the hallways of Congress and the bureaucracy of the administration. And we are here to be their voice in Washington, DC representing their interests before the Congress and the federal agencies. And part of that job, fortunately, and unfortunately, is helping to make sure that communities are prepared to respond to disasters whenever they occur. So I’m excited to be here today and tell you a little bit more about our work.

Irene Conforti  1:39 

Thanks, Jen. And welcome. We’re happy to have you. So just to get started, how, how did you first hear about emergency management since they know your field is more locally focused? You know, how did that come about?

Jen Covino  1:54 

Well, for me, emergency management actually started in my childhood, on a personal note. I grew up in a house on the water in East Boston, Massachusetts. And some of my very early memories are of flooding in the first floor of my house. We actually had FEMA respond to a small flood we had in the early 90s, when the groundwater table in East Boston, came up pretty high during winter storm. So that was my first sort of exposure to emergency management, I’d say in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t much of an emergency. But my interest started there and over the years increased into me, just I will admit this, I am a very risk adverse person. And so in 2005, you know, as Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, that to me just piqued my interest on a personal note, and sort of guided my academic studies, as I move forward in college and in pursuing my masters. I’ll probably talk a little bit more about Katrina and some different events as we move forward in our conversation

Irene Conforti  3:06 

Great. Well, I do want to sort of touch on, you know, the degree that you just mentioned, I know you said you’ve got your master’s degree. And this is a podcast is geared towards students. So I would love to hear a little bit about your master’s experience, as I’m also in process of getting my masters experience and, you know, tips that you might have for folks that are interested in local government, or, you know, in emergency management in general.

Jen Covino  3:34 

Absolutely. So, as an undergraduate, I actually studied US history. And I had one professor who, as I was exploring my future career opportunities, advised me at the time that maybe a PhD in history was not going to be the most economically prosperous path forward for me. And so at the time, when I was an undergrad, I’d actually taken a work study job, doing transportation planning, and with a nonprofit organization in the city of Boston. And I grew to really love working in transportation infrastructure. So by the time I wrapped up undergrad, I had decided to focus on pursuing a Master’s of Public Administration. And I was fortunate enough to be able to get into the George Washington University that has some amazing experts in the field of emergency management, it was my intention to actually go into the field. But one thing that I think is really important for all students to be aware of, personally, I’m just not too emotionally resilient as a person. And so for me, I made a very intentional decision in my early 20s, knowing that I don’t think I could have handled and with my heart and in my soul, being a first responder or being on the ground, when disaster strikes, I so admire the people who have that ability to respond, dedicate their lives to serving their fellow Americans, or citizens of the world and other countries when disaster strikes. But for me, personally, I just did not have that that level of resiliency that I saw respect in first responders and emergency managers. So I decided I would take a path in public administration, that would allow me to have a Nexus to this work, and to sort of advocate on behalf of communities in terms of their mitigation activities, ensuring that there’s robust federal funding to support communities to mitigate risk and to adequately respond when disaster does strike. And so now, in my work, I basically am an advocate for communities in that sense, making sure that federal programs are well funded, so that we’re all well prepared. And in the event, that emergency does, unfortunately happen.

Irene Conforti  5:56 

That’s a lot of really good information. And it sounds like you touched on both some of your, your personal challenges, when when dealing with emergencies, and are there is sort of an aspect of having personal resilience and being able to take care of your own mental health when it comes to emergency management, which is a huge, you know, issue and something it’s worth talking about. And then I also kind of wanted to hear a little bit about what was going on with the challenges in your communities. So I guess I’m wondering if you can talk to me a little bit about the challenges in some the community think that you do represent.

Jen Covino  6:39 

Okay, so I think universally right now, I can say this, there are challenges that are gentle enough that they’re applicable to every single community I work with. So I work on behalf of cities and counties in nine different states across the country. I have a number of clients on the west coast and more Washington state and in California, they are both on the coast and summer inland. I also represent a number of communities in the heartland of the country, including states like Kentucky, Indiana, and Utah, which are totally landlocked. So we’re not talking about coastal resiliency, but we’re talking about issues like air quality, and drought, and so universally, in 2019. I think climate change is a major challenge that’s starting to impact a lot of our communities. And we’re starting to really feel the risks and the burden of them. If you look across this country, deteriorating, deteriorating infrastructure is going to be an ongoing challenge. I think for every community, urban, rural, small, large, a lot of the massive infrastructure that America built in the 19th and 20th century is reaching the end of its useful life in the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that for point $5 trillion of investment would be necessary before 2025 in order to maintain our backlog of infrastructure. Yeah, so we’re talking about, you know, systems, whether it’s transportation, energy, water, wastewater, stormwater, all the different kinds of water, when we’re talking about our forests, I mean, there is such a need for investment in our infrastructure. And I think in terms of the Federal in local relationship, it’s really critical for our intergovernmental relationship for the federal government, state government and local government to be stepping up and making investment in our nation’s infrastructure, because it helps us prepare to mitigate, you know, the risks of both climate change and other natural disasters. And I’m glad to, to give some further examples on that.

Irene Conforti  8:58 

No, absolutely. I think that you’re right, you really need to focus on climate change, and also sort of look to the future and say, you know, what are we doing for the next generation so that we can mitigate disasters from happening for our kids and our grandkids as well, I would like to hear a little bit more about some of the challenges and some of the solution things that you see.

Jen Covino  9:22 

Yeah, so just to give you an example, you know, the past eight years of my life, we have my colleagues and I’ve dedicated a lot of time to addressing drought in the state of California, in California Water, there have been movies made about it in terms of any political issues. I mean, that’s as political as it gets. However, I am a very a political person, when it comes to emergency management in policymaking, I think we should all guide our decisions with facts, pragmatism, science, all that good stuff, you know, over the past five years, probably up until about 2016, or 2017, the state of California had five years of drought. And there were a number of communities in the Central Valley that were running out of groundwater, and did not have access to clean drinking water in some of the more rural communities. And so, you know, this, this event was both a natural disaster, and in some sense, almost a man made disaster. And I won’t ever explain my politics to anybody, especially in my work. I like I said, we’re totally political. But this is one case where, you know, over the years, I so enjoyed working with the Obama administration, their white house was so enormously helpful to folks. And you know, the the administration makes its decisions in accordance with law and federal statute and regulations. But during those years of drought, one of the things we discovered was some opera flexibilities for water pumping throughout the Delta tunnels in the state of California. And if you’re not familiar with them, I mean, it’s it I could go on for hours talking about this, but I will spare you all and everyone listening.

But one of the one of the flexibilities that’s contained in the implementation of the Endangered Species Act, is an allowance for the Bureau of Reclamation, and Noah within the Department of Commerce, to be able to maximize pumping of water, in accordance with the legal biological opinions. The Endangered Species Act, will prescribe a set of guidelines saying, you know, for endangered species, like the Delta smelt, you’re allowed to intake, X number of delta smelt as you’re pumping water, will the administration during those years wanted to be conservative with pumping water, and we would ask them to to increase pumping to the maximum threshold allowed within the biological opinions, but they were always hesitant to do so fearing legal ramifications, or having to stop the water altogether. Anyways, you know, it’s navigating that bureaucracy and in the legal parameters, sometimes that can be frustrating when you have communities that don’t have access to clean drinking water.

Irene Conforti  12:23 

It’s really hard, especially in the United States to hear about these communities. And you know, they don’t have that access.

Jen Covino  12:29 

Yeah. And we had one woman, there was a woman mayor, and she, by day, worked in a corrections institution. And by by night, her other job was, you know, to be a mayor, to the community, small community and to be a mom to her kids. And she would come to Washington, DC to sort of explain the difficulties of not having access to clean drinking water, and being able to take care of her kids and to cook for them and keep them clean. And, you know, another concern with the drought is there, so many public lands in the state of California, especially forests, that after five years of drought, we have had a lot of dead trees. And as you know, dead trees are a huge risk for wildfire. And so for five years, you know, we would sort of communicate our fears on behalf of especially more rural communities located up in the mountains that, you know, if there were to be a fire, the likelihood that it would spread, you know, was further exacerbated by the fact that folks were not managing their lands to the degree they should have been. And again, there were regulations in place by the US Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management, that did not allow state or local partners to go ahead and remove the dead timber from the forest. And so for years, we have this concern, and then it was so frustrating and sad to see in 2018, the devastating can’t fire in the Woolsey fire down to the south, affect those communities in California where, you know, a town like paradise, California suffered 13,000 losses of households in commercial property and killed 86 of our American brothers and sisters. So, you know, that’s sort of the worst case scenario, when emergency planners are aware that a threat exists, and because, you know, the nature of government is to be very intentional, in their decision making into have to contend with a lack of resources that are available, in some ways, you know, it’s just a sad situation. And that’s why, you know, we’re here to advocate and to ensure that we’re doing everything within our power working with local state and federal partners to mitigate any risks that can be mitigated. So that, you know, if if that timber, you know, if there’s a spark, you know, we can stop the spread to the greatest extent possible. And another issue is, a lot of those communities up there in the hills, only have one road in or one road out. And, you know, redundancy when it gets to transportation, yes, you need resiliency and redundancy. And even, you know, you look at the wildfires, and I think, unfortunately, you know, after any of these disasters occur, what we’re left with is the lessons learned. And one of the things we’ve learned after those wildfires is the importance of having an effective communication system, where if, you know, folks are sending out alerts via telecommunications network or your cell phones, you know, our our senior citizens going to hear those alerts at night, while they’re asleep. How can we ensure that there’s redundancy there so that any alerts that are going out on behalf of the local government are actually being communicated effectively in heard by those who need to hear those messages. So that’s something that’s a really interesting opportunity to look out for the future in terms of prevention. You know, I remember, before Hurricane Katrina happened, the National Weather Service had issued a bulletin to the citizens of New Orleans at 10:11am. On August 28, 2005, that used really foreboding language, it was the first time that the federal government had issued a bulletin that was sort of that dire in its nature. And that I think, is a watershed moment and a lot of ways about examining the role of communications and emergency management and planning, being able to convey a threat and really convey to citizens that they’re in harm’s way, when, when the situation arises. It’s something that the government has a unique role in. And it’s something we can always be improving upon for the future. But to me, when I look at that bulletin that went out to New Orleans back in August 2005, you know, I just, I only wish that that bulletin had gone up maybe a day or two sooner, and perhaps maybe the death toll of Katrina wouldn’t be 1800 people, right?

Irene Conforti  17:23 

Yeah. And it, it’s always something to consider when it comes to communications and communication planning. And I know that you mentioned the former senior citizens. But it’s also good to know, you know, when it comes to communications, or first responders, programs, like AT&T First Net, which Todd Defoe has spoken about, is something that’s really useful when there really aren’t enough networks or there’s throttling that occurs, having a dedicated network for first responders are really all practice to have. I’d love to hear anything else that you you’ve got to add or any advice that you have interested in getting into emergency management or interested in sort of the local aspects of it?

Jen Covino  18:17 

Yeah. So I mean, what you’re saying about at&t and first net, I mean, you know, as we look at our federal budget, you know, we’re always struggling with resources. And that’s why public private partnerships are so important. And, you know, over the past decade, I think the federal government has sought out those opportunities where they exist. And it’s really helpful. If you look at, you know, the Boston Marathon bombing, for instance. Fortunately, the city of Boston had done a lot of really excellent planning in advance and was able to tap into telecommunications networks, not only to deal with the immediate response there, but also, in the subsequent days, when, you know, law enforcement had a role to play and ensuring safety to the public, when suspects were still, you know, out and about in the community there. You know, emergency management touches so many aspects of life. And there are so many opportunities, whether it’s with local government, state government, or the federal government, to be involved in some capacity. So if you are contemplating that, let me tell you first careers in local government, I think, are some of the most rewarding that you could pursue. I know that the millennial generation is highly concerned with social impact and leaving, leaving our world around us in a better place for the next generation. And I think that pursuing a path in emergency management is a great way to facilitate that, to have a meaningful mission in your everyday life. And local government is a great place to start your career, you have solid business, you’re respected, and you can make a remarkable contribution to your community. So how can you be involved, like I said, I didn’t have the most traditional path. And I am still almost just serving in a tangential role to emergency managers. But, you know, if I look across the board across, across city or county government, I would say every single department within a city hall has a role in emergency management. You know, it could be the the folks in the Office of Management and Budget who are making sure that there are adequate resources to support the necessary programs, you may be in communications, communications, and PR is a is a passion of yours at this age. You know, you could be the people who are sitting there contemplating the language to get out the alerts to folks like we were just discussing, or you could go into public works and ensure that our infrastructure systems are adequate for the public. There are so many different opportunities to engage in emergency management. So I stress you know, be creative in your thinking. And again, you know, GW made us take us made all of us made all of the students at Trachtenberg sit down and take a Myers Briggs personality test. And there’s 16 different personality types. You know, some of you may be extroverts. Some of you might be introverts. You know, for the introverts out there. As I get older, I’ve realized I’m more of an introvert than I ever assumed. And I love sitting behind my desk in drafting policy recommendations, you could be a policy analyst, you know, you don’t have to be out in the field. But if being out in the field is something of interest to you, you know, there are so many countless opportunities there. And you can do it as a public servant on behalf of local state or federal government. There’s also opportunities that exist in the nonprofit sector, we’ve seen the American Red Cross, you know, for many, many decades be there on the ground and some of the first there’s other partnership opportunities as well. After Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area of Texas, the mayor’s office benefited greatly from an existing partnership with the Greater Houston Community Foundation. And the Community Foundation actually became a conduit for the city and community to leverage a lot of incoming resources. And so in that situation, and nonprofit entity in the community had a key role in distributing finances and resources to those in need. And other lesson learned after Hurricane Harvey, you know, down in Houston, we sort of saw the role of local zoning, and how a lack of zoning can exacerbate a problem. And so, you know, the hurricane dumped dozens of inches of rain and sold out over Houston for quite some time. But we also saw that there were some some key features of the grid there, that could have been better zoned in not subject to floodplain. So if you want to do zoning in your community, that’s another path into emergency management in a roundabout way.

Irene Conforti  23:16 

Right. And also, you know, just to sort of tie it back to the built environment, engineering, I mean, there’s a lot of different paths that, you know, can weed themselves into making sure that your your community is more resilient, and that you guys are better prepared. Final question for Jen, is we want to wrap it up. But we’re really happy to have you here. And you’re we’re grateful to have your insight. I’m wondering, what is one of the books that you’re reading?

Jen Covino  23:48 

Right now? Oh, my goodness, I’m actually reading President Trump’s 2020 budget proposal. I haven’t had a lot of time recently to read books, unfortunately. I have a stack of books, though, that I should be reading. But right now it was budget. We care in Washington, DC. So I’ve got a few hundred pages of the federal budget proposal to examine and get and communicate that to my folks. But you know, a few books that I have at home, you know, Cecil Richards from Planned Parenthood came out with a book last year that I’ve been looking forward to reading. Just one One thing to note, you know, just shout out to women, public figures, you know, women in public leadership, as you’re talking about a number of the different sectors, you know, like engineering, in other sectors that support emergency management, there are not enough women in leadership. And so this, this is a message I have to carry to any students out there, especially the girls and any other underrepresented populations, the LGBT community, people of color. You know, as much as times have been frustrating and challenging in America recently, I am so excited and thrilled to see an emerging number of underrepresented voices finally crawling up and taking back their power. And, you know, I have the great fortune amongst the mayors I represent, I actually have gender parity.

Irene Conforti  25:23 

Oh, wonderful.

Jen Covino  25:24 

Yeah, so I have an equal number of women, mayors and male mayors, not to dismiss our male counterparts. But it’s really exciting to see women taking on greater leadership roles. And you know, there’s institutional barriers to that, right. But if you are a woman who’s interested in a career in public administration, or emergency management, please know that there are women like me and Irene who are here, to put the ladder down to you and bring you along on the journey, right, so much, I think of our professional development opportunities in life or, or just extending a hand to anyone who has an interest in being there to be an advocate for other women. So just know, there are women in local government, there are women in the federal government, there are women in the nonprofit communities in the private sector, who are there to be mentors to you all, there aren’t enough of us across those key sectors. So whatever we can do the to build the bench of talent, I think that’s a really exciting cause for our generation to take forward with us.

Irene Conforti  26:26 

And sort of to dovetail on on that, you know, if you do see somebody who you, you know, maybe don’t know, personally, but you’re interested in what they’re doing professionally, you know, go ahead and reach out to them, shoot them an email, reach out to maybe a local official, you know, that is representative of you and your background, because you might be able to learn something from them, too, because that’s, you know, I ended up reaching out to Todd DeVoe that I really liked that you’re doing a podcast, and he gave me this opportunity. So, also make yourself known. If you’re interested in something that isn’t traditionally your field, you never know who’s going to be there to support you and to cheer you on.

Jen Covino  27:11 

Yeah, it’s funny, because I think I started this podcast saying, I’m so risk adverse as a person, you will miss 100% of the opportunities that you never take the risk to pursue. So as Irene is saying, you know, always take the chance at the people who have the genuine interest, I think that registers with people in the field. And the other thing is, you know, I’m going to say it here, and now it’s my, I like to yell this out loud. But if you ever have any interest in running for office, at the local level of state, federal level, you know, go for it. If you want to support emergency management, you know, you can be very effective in doing that in politics, as a political as I am. It is great to have allies, you know, in positions of power in our local institutions. So, I would encourage you to do that. And like Irene said, be loud, be vocal and just reach out. And if you guys ever want to send me an email, I’ll give you my email address. It is the longest email address ever.

Irene Conforti  28:12 

We will post the email at the bottom of this podcast.

Jen Covino  28:14 

Yes.

Irene Conforti  28:15 

Along with the Simon company, link and all the social media associated with that.

Jen Covino  28:22 

So it’s a jennifer.covino@simoncompany.com. So if you listen to this podcast and its entirety, and me rambling, please send me an email, let me know if I can ever be of help to you. And oddly enough, as I said, my work takes me to all of these great states across the country. So no matter where you are in this country, chances are we’re probably familiar with your mayor or your city council, just through our work. So anything we can do to be an asset to you all. If you have an interest in the field, please let me know we’re here in DC and I absolutely love and adore having any opportunity to hear from fellow Americans who might have an interest in these topics.

Irene Conforti  29:04  Thank you so much, Jen, for being on the program. And we’ll see you next week. Thanks so much, guys.

Links

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jencovino/
Website: https://simoncompany.com/
Email: jennifer.covino@simoncompany.com

EM Weekly on Situation Radio
https://sitchradio.com/our-shows/em-student/

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