FEMA Corps: Bringing in the Next Generation

by Richard Serino & Jennifer Grimes

When Hurricane Sandy struck the east coast in 2012, its effects were devastating. The storm left a trail of destruction that affected 24 states, killing 159 people, costing $70.2 billion in damage, and leaving millions without power. Yet, in the wake of this terrible disaster, there was a new source of hope: A group of young AmeriCorps members working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) newly launched FEMA Corps assisted the recovery effort.

Richard Serino headshotAmeriCorps members have had a profound impact through their assistance in various recovery efforts, including the response to the catastrophic tornado outbreak in Joplin, Missouri, in 2011. Their efforts demonstrate an eagerness to serve and to help those devastated by disasters, the utility of a service corps in disaster response and recovery, and the importance of opening more opportunities for national service to young volunteers. FEMA Corps members are specially trained in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery and are assigned to work with on-the-ground FEMA responders at presidentially declared disasters and other emergencies. Their roles are diverse and include helping with logistics, survivor assistance, public assistance, and recovery (more information is available online). Through this program, young patriots can have a profound, even heroic, impact on disaster outcome for individual survivors and whole communities.

Personal & Professional Growth Through Service & Mentorship

Not only has FEMA Corps had a positive impact on disaster outcomes for those affected by the event, but the organization has also proved beneficial to the volunteers themselves at a critical time in their lives. Members have an opportunity to explore their interests in emergency management and homeland security. Their one or two years of service afford them experiences that few others have had, especially so early in their careers:

  • Deploying to and seeing disasters and disaster management firsthand;
  • Having the opportunity to serve others and to help them through the worst times; and
  • Traveling to many parts of the country as their help is needed.

The resultant experiences and earned insights of FEMA Corps members coupled with their personal understanding of the importance of service and its impact prepare them to become great leaders, whether or not they continue to pursue a career in emergency management. The service experience itself is even more than helping survivors. It is also learning to help each other in the work they do and driving their team’s success and others’ wellbeing regardless of the chaos and adversity around them.

The service aspect of FEMA Corps offers an invaluable experience, but mentorship is also a critically important part of any field. Any profession within emergency management should establish internships and opportunities to serve within a mentorship structure for individuals at all levels in their careers. Mentors can be those in senior roles, but also those who are newer in their positions, as they too have valuable experiences and insights to share with those who are younger or newer in the profession and would benefit from immediate coaching during the initial phases of their careers. Mentors are an indispensable resource for individuals throughout their careers to speak with, advise, and discuss ideas with them, thus helping them develop their understanding of the field and its processes. Mentors can also introduce mentees to others to expand their networks, open doors to help create opportunities for them, and teach them both directly and through observation.

Mentees can learn important practical knowledge from their mentors, but the learning is not unidirectional. Mentors can also learn important information from mentees, whose perspective is quite different from theirs. In a milieu where enthusiasm, compassion, and commitment meet difficulty and complexity, the experiences of FEMA Corps volunteers are greatly enhanced by the development of mentorships during their service.

FEMA Corps: Bringing in the Next Generation
Richard Serino with two FEMA Corps members in Bethpage, NY. Source: FEMA/Jocelyn Augustino (5 November 2012).

Mentoring – A Win-Win Experience

The personal impact of the experience of working with FEMA Corps coupled with the guidance available through mentorship help shape young volunteers, enabling them for the next part of their careers and supporting efforts to find their calling. Members of FEMA Corps who have completed a year of service without knowing what their next step would be have found that the year helped them to decide that they wanted to serve. Some volunteers continued their careers within FEMA in National Incident Management Assistance Teams (IMATs). Others left emergency management, but they serve in other ways, continuing their community engagement as police officers or teachers.

Regardless of ultimate career path, a year of working in FEMA Corps has shown members the gift of helping people through dedicated service, and it has inspired their fundamental drive to continue to serve others in whatever career path best fits their skills and interests. As they find themselves in their work, FEMA Corps members can also learn from others through mentorship. Everyone, from undergraduate and graduate students, Ph.D. candidates and post-doctoral fellows, to people working in high levels of government and private sector – everyone can be a mentor to someone. Mentoring others shares resources, knowledge, and experiences, and can yield contributions and personal satisfaction even more rewarding than the benefaction of being mentored.

Richard Serino (pictured), is a distinguished visiting fellow at Harvard School of Public Health, National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He was appointed by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) 8th deputy administrator in October 2009 and served until 2014. He responded to over 60 national disasters while at FEMA. During Super Storm Sandy, he was the lead federal area commander for New York and New Jersey. Prior to his appointment as deputy administrator, he spent 36 years at Boston Emergency Medical Services, where he became chief and oversaw 35 mass causality incidents. He also served as the assistant director of the Boston Public Health Commission. He is currently a senior advisor for numerous organizations such as Airbnb and the MIT Urban Risk Labs. He attended Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government Senior Executives in State and Local Government program, completed the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (a joint program of the Harvard School of Public Health and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government), and graduated the Executive Leadership Program, Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Jennifer Grimes, B.A., M.A., is a medical student at the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University. Previously, she was: an intern at Harvard University, National Preparedness Leadership Initiative; the research coordinator for Harvard Faculty Physicians Fellowship in Disaster Medicine, an affiliated fellowship of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative; a clinical research assistant at Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging; as well as a research assistant at Harvard University Psychology Department’s Systems Neuroscience of Psychopathology Lab and at the Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab.