TALLAHASSEE -- Yes, there were jokes made when Gov. Rick Scott appointed a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. executive to as Florida’s emergency management director, like the suggestion that hurricane shelters will begin hiring greeters in blue vests to welcome people displaced from their homes.
And there was also some resentment that Scott didn’t look for an appointee who had disaster experience in Florida. But Bryan Koon, who took over the Division of Emergency Management after working as Wal-Mart’s emergency management director, is also proving to be someone willing to listen.
Charlotte County emergency management director Wayne Sallade said he had early misgivings about Koon but he is now confident that Koon has strong qualifications and will do a good job leading the Division of Emergency Management.
“Was I disappointed that somebody from Florida was not at least interviewed or given a chance? Yeah, that sort of bothered me,” Sallade said. “There was a bit of a feeling of betrayal there -- yeah, let’s bring in somebody from Arkansas that really hasn’t been to war with us -- but I think we’ll get over that and I think he’ll do fine.”
Koon’s work with the retail giant wasn’t just a matter of making sure stores could open after a disaster. Thought went into staging supplies and generators and a large part of the program was making sure employees and their families knew how to prepare themselves and their homes in the event of a disaster. That meant getting a message out in several different formats -- email, in-person presentations, internal company websites, employee magazines and video and audio presentations.
With 1.5 million employees and their families included, Koon estimates the preparedness message reached 3 million people.
“I had a captive audience of over 1 percent of the U.S. population that I could directly speak to in that capacity and help them understand the importance of preparing for a disaster in their home or in their community,” Koon said. “We know that message isn’t going to sink into every single person there, but through the repetition of that message and making sure that it was targeted the right way, I think we had some good impact.”
Now he wants to improve the way the Division of Emergency Management gets its message out to 18 million Floridians.
“There’s a natural complacency that comes after five years of not having a hurricane, so we have to overcome that inertia,” Koon said.
He’s looking at ways of micro-targeting certain populations, understanding that Florida’s diverse population requires different ways of packaging a message. For one, the agency is getting too dependent on social media, he believes.
“These guys are do a great job with Facebook and Twitter and things like that, but we also have to remember that there’s a huge chunk of elderly population in this state for whom that has no meaning whatsoever, so we need to make sure that we’re continuing to utilize some of the tried and true methods of communicating,” he said.
The state already works closely with private companies on hurricane preparation and response and Koon thinks his background will be able to help expand that relationship. As well as helping make sure businesses are prepared for disasters, communicating with businesses after a storm hits could help determine where the state sets distribution of food, water and ice based on where stores are open and closed.
Koon, a 39-year-old Navy veteran, also worked in the White House Military Office from 1998 to 2003, where he was tasked with ensuring government could continue operating in the event of a disaster. While he hasn’t worked in emergency management in Florida, he grew up in Branford in Suwannee County and his parents now live in Tallahassee. And he’s quickly getting reacquainted with the state as he tries to meet face-to-face with emergency directors in all 67 counties.
“I’ve spent a great deal of time on the road going to meetings with them in their emergency operations centers, getting to know them on an individual level, getting to see their physical facilities, meet their staff so that I can firsthand understand the challenges they’re facing and help develop solutions,” said Koon, who graduated from Cornell and has a master’s of business administration from George Washington University.
What he’s hearing is that directors want less bureaucracy on the state and federal level, especially since many county emergency management departments are small operations and time is valuable. It also goes along with Scott’s philosophy of trying to make government less cumbersome.
“If it doesn’t make sense, if it doesn’t have a return on investment for the state or for that county, let’s do away with it. Let’s focus on what truly is important,” Koon said.
Sallade, who met Koon at an Orlando meeting, said the new emergency management director appear to be listening. Sallade also likes that one of the first things he did after being appointed in January was to establish a monthly statewide conference call to update counties on what the state is doing and to listen to input from county directors. While conference calls are common as storms approach, he said a routine call is something new.
“I base a lot of things on first impressions when I talk to people, when I meet people, and my first impression of Bryan was that I liked him and I felt like he would do a good job. I had to put all my misconceptions and all my preconceived notions aside,” Sallade said. “I’ve sort of come full circle.”