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Brace yourself. I’m going to say something that many people will find astounding, if not shocking. Are you ready?  OK…here goes.

The center of gravity for private sector engagement at DHS is at FEMA.

Five years ago, if you had told me I would say those words, given all of my experiences at DHS and especially after my deployment during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I would have told you that you were nuts. To say FEMA has become a far more welcoming place for the private sector to interact with would be an understatement.

So why make this statement? Very simply, it goes to a culminating experience that I had three weeks ago at FEMA Headquarters. Gathered on the second floor, several dozen private sector leaders from a range of different associations and professional organizations sat around a table to review and talk about what the agency is doing to improve its interaction with the private sector.  Led by Dan Stoneking, the Director of FEMA’s Private Sector Office, who was joined by a number of other senior FEMA leaders, the meeting was one of reflection, candor and openness about what is happening now, what past failures have been and what can be done in the future to make things better. For my former boss, Al Martinez-Fonts (who now works at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and was also in attendance), and me, it was a positively mind-numbing, if not shocking, experience.

Five years prior to that meeting, at the height of the post-Katrina debacles of which FEMA became the national fall-guy, if you had even ventured mentioning to the agency the need to engage the private sector or even attempted to broker a meeting or any type of dialogue, you would have had any number of FEMA personnel running in a panic for the quickest escape possible and screaming, “We can’t do that!” All of this happening while the panic stricken picked up their phones to call the General Counsels Office and Inspector General to report the crime against humanity that they felt they were somehow witnessing. Well, the crime against humanity part may be an exaggeration but the attitude, response and actions of FEMA in that time and place is not. Ask anyone who worked with the agency back then to compare where it is today in its relationships with the private sector, and I’m confident they will give you a sigh of relief and say, “Thank God it’s better!”

How did this happen? How did FEMA turn around the hostile cultural and operational attitude towards the private sector? Most people can and do appropriately point to Craig Fugate. As the agency’s administrator, he deserves whatever praise and reward the agency gains for its improvements, especially as they occur under his watch. His track record in Florida and his forward-leaning candor since taking over the agency a year and a half ago in challenging the status quo of how things used to be run are certainly of note. Fugate, it would seem, has never, ever shied away from being willing to have a conversation with anyone if it meant he was able to learn something and make it better. He has been bold enough to take on the sacred cow assertions of old that others were never able to take on, and to his own luck and fortune, he has never been gored to death by the other bulls in the pen for looking to make changes.

The second person I would point to is Dan Stoneking and the FEMA Private Sector Office.  Taking over as the director of this still fairly new office in February of this year, Stoneking has been the ultimate of successful operators. With humility and an endless drive to apply common sense where it is absent, he has sought to build relationships where they did not exist or where they broken. Given his previous experience within the agency in its External Relations Division, his own private sector experiences and knowing how both worlds operate has made him the strongest ambassador the agency has with the people and organizations that make America’s economy and innovation happen. Being a self-professed New Hampshire born “state’s rights advocate” has only helped him too. His willingness to tell the agency’s powers that they cannot do their jobs alone or hope to have success in helping communities recover from disaster without the private sector playing a critical role has not been easy.

For all the facts and realities that Fugate and Stoneking may have on their side, they still face skeptics within their own agency, as well as in state and local emergency management partners who still see the separate public and private sector worlds as being the way things should be and remain. That view is frankly the same path as the dinosaurs of old where vision is short and extinction is assured.

That leads me to the final parties who deserve credit for this turn around. It goes to people like former FEMA Administrator David Paulison and members of his team who, in picking up the pieces post Katrina, started to move FEMA into the modern age of realizing it could not be a solitary island and do its job. It goes to people like Bob Dix, who despite having his regular day job at Juniper Networks, would become an extremely forceful advocate to make sure the agency made the private sector an active part of its exercise program and not just a spectator .

It goes to people like my old boss, Al Martinez-Fonts and my old office, DHS’ Private Sector Office, for making the then-very unpopular pushes on FEMA leaders and the agency components to make the private sector a real priority in its planning and daily considerations. It goes to groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, NEMA and others who poked, prodded, complained and counseled FEMA that it had to change the way it did business if it had any chance of achieving success. Finally it goes to the private sector itself, which has demonstrated time and again in disasters large and small that they can be the best friend FEMA could ever have on its worst days.

The big guys like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Target, Lowes and others have set the bar high on how to perform in the worst of situations. It will be up to them to convince their other big league brethren to maintain a healthy sense of readiness and investment in continuing this level of preparedness. With corporate budgets already lean, it is all too easy for cost-conscious bean counters to see expenditures in preparedness as an expense rather than an investment in resilience, which it ultimately is.

FEMA’s turnaround in engaging the private sector is a change for the better for everyone involved, but it is not a permanent victory. It will always be a fight to convince people internally and externally of the value these relationships and interchanges bring. Skeptics and critics never go away, but that’s OK. In fact, it is absolutely necessary to keep the relationships in check and ethically balanced. No one party should ever hold all of the face cards in a card game with so much at stake, but it’s also a whole lot better when people don’t look at each other as the enemy and realize that joined together, they can do so much good. That’s what is happening at FEMA today, and I’m not crazy to say that either.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More