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Leonard ’83: Calm in Crises

Joe Leonard ’83 is an emergency management consultant and a member of the U.S. Coast Guard auxiliary. His first involvement with emergency services dates back to his high school years, when he volunteered with the local fire department.

Some assert that the people involved in emergency services develop a different intuition than most. While most people run away from threats, those in emergency services instead move toward them. Joseph J. Leonard Jr. ’83 is among those few. Leonard has been doing so for quite some time, stretching back to his time as a volunteer firefighter in his hometown of Croton-on-Hudson, New York.

A history major at VMI, Leonard served as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army – including service with its 101st Airborne Division. In 1987, he transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard and became a naval aviator, flying the HH-65 Dolphin. During several search-and-rescue missions, many flown in bad weather conditions, Leonard again moved toward the danger.

In 1994, he took a different tack, but not too different, when he was assigned to the U.S. Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Office in Houston, Texas, the location of a port that services the largest petrochemical complex in the Western Hemisphere. There, he became a contingency planner.

“At the time, many considered such jobs as unimportant,” he said. “In the Army and all the other services, however, planning is considered absolutely critical.”

Leonard took to his new job, and within three months, his team had revamped a wide array of contingency plans. His timing was impeccable. “We were about to test the plan when Mother Nature interfered and challenged us with a hurricane.” When word got around the Coast Guard as to how well Leonard’s team’s plan had worked, many in the Coast Guard were asking for his advice and copying his plan.

“As a result,” Leonard recalled, “I became the Coast Guard’s second incident-command system instructor, and my career took on a new direction.” For most of the next 21 years, Leonard took on planning, emergency management and response assignments, which culminated with him launching the Coast Guard’s first full-time Incident Management Assistance Team. When he retired in 2015, Leonard stayed in the Houston area, working for a company that specializes in providing emergency planning consultation to corporations and public agencies. “I basically do what I did in the Coast Guard for more than two decades.” said Leonard. “It made for one very easy transition.”

Asked to describe how the state of emergency management in the United States has evolved since he began working in the field, Leonard pointed to 9/11 as a major turning point. “When the sun rose that day, a lot of federal, state and local agencies, and the private sector were not functioning as good partners. There was too much red tape, and information sharing and dissemination was inadequate. That meant immediately after 9/11, we were developing solutions on the fly, seeing if they worked, modifying them and putting them into action – sometimes in the space of a day. Over time – and a very short time – we developed new tactics, techniques and procedures. Just as important, we developed an understanding that what we learned could be and should be applied to responses to natural disasters and technological hazards.”

Leonard said that emergency planning and response has continued to improve. He cites what happened in the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina as evidence of that improvement. “Many people were critical of the federal response,” he said, “but we need to remember that the Coast Guard, the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Teams and our DoD partners made the majority of the rescues. That is teamwork. You got to see it again during Hurricanes Ike and Harvey and Superstorm Sandy. And over the years, we’ve learned from each situation and become better at partnering, sharing information and understanding each other’s capabilities, limitations, authorities and other jurisdictional issues.”

Asked to compare the COVID-19 emergency to others like Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Leonard started with the similarities. The first is that a common effort is required across the whole spectrum of government agencies at all levels, non-governmental organizations and corporations. “That’s what we are getting, especially with information sharing.”

"'As in earlier emergencies, political leadership means a lot in terms of getting the job done and keeping citizens calm. The better leaders will have a solid ‘command presence;’ they’ll be decisive, calm, organized.'"

Joe Leonard ’83

Then, there’s the political dimension. “As in earlier emergencies, political leadership means a lot in terms of getting the job done and keeping citizens calm. The better leaders will have a solid ‘command presence;’ they’ll be decisive, calm, organized. They will be partners and team builders, surrounding themselves with the best in the business who’ll offer the best counsel. Finally, they’ll be effective communicators who convey complex concepts and describe appropriate actions to an anxious population in an understandable manner. Above all, they’ll project calm, confidence and hope.”

“Third, logistics. The old military maxim that ‘an Army travels on its stomach’ is equally applicable to emergency management. You can’t help people if you don’t have the proper tools. The President’s use of the Defense Production Act is getting industry focused on meeting our critical needs, but it will take time to get things in place.”

He cited three important differences, the first being the global scope of the crisis. This, he says, puts a far greater strain on available supplies, many of which come from overseas. The second is the reaction of some jurisdictions to the crisis. “Some have enacted near martial law and some are clamoring to impose that nationwide. But, we’re such a diverse country and that might mean different answers for different regions. Shutting down entire cities for months or a year without a care as to what that will do to our citizens and our economy has the potential to make, to borrow a phrase, ‘the cure more dangerous than the disease.’”

The third is the quality of response from the Department of Health and Human Services. During the Ebola virus response in 2014, according to Leonard, some from the HHS were somewhat uncomfortable working in leadership positions on a major response. “We’re well past that,” he said, “and the entire HHS team – to include the surgeon general, the Centers for Disease Control and the Public Health Service – is providing critical leadership.”

Like many, Leonard is “wearing two hats” – that of an emergency management consultant and a division commander in the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. In the former, he is part of the efforts of his company – Emergency Management Solutions – across 18 states to respond to clients’ emerging needs for training and incident management support or consulting on improving daily operations plans. More specifically, Leonard’s team is currently providing incident management support for a 250-bed COVID-19 medical shelter, a 1,250-bed facility for homeless and mentally distressed persons, and several locations for people who have tested positive but are not in any medical distress.

As to the USCG Auxiliary, Leonard is responsible for 276 members who serve from Lake Charles, Louisiana, to Freeport, Texas. Right now, his division’s members are focusing on staying informed and safeguarding their families, but they are aware that they might be called upon to support the Coast Guard’s response to COVID-19, an oil spill, severe weather event or marine disaster.

“The Coast Guard motto is Semper Paratus or ‘Always Ready,’ and that is what we strive to be,” he said.

Asked to share some of the advice he is giving his colleagues in emergency management. Leonard stressed three points. “First, you must maintain strong relationships because working together is crucial. Next, no plan survives first contact with the situation. So, prepare to modify what you have to meet the emerging situation. The result might not be perfect, but it will likely help you get through the current situation. Finally, resources: Keep track of your resources, and that includes people, and don’t hoard them, because if you do, other communities may go without.”

Leonard also offered advice for everyone else. He suggested that people follow the CDC guidelines, as well as those from state and local public health authorities and emergency management agencies.

He stressed the need to remain calm, “Don’t panic. Don’t overreact. If you go shopping, get what you need for just a week or two, and you won’t need 83 rolls of toilet paper. If you overbuy, others do not get what they need,” he said.

“This is not something that will be over in a week or two. We might be dealing with this for several months. That’ll put a lot of folks under enormous stress. So, be kind and understanding of them. Make sure you look after your family, friends and neighbors. Above all, stay positive, don’t give up and never say die!”

From health care professionals to those keeping vital goods moving, hundreds of alumni are keeping our country safe – and perpetuating the Institute’s great citizen-soldier tradition. 

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  • Scott Belliveau

    Scott Belliveau '83 Communications Officer - Executive Projects

    The communications officer supports the strategy for all communications, including web content, public relations messages and collateral pieces in order to articulate and promote the mission of the VMI Alumni Agencies and promote philanthropy among varied constituencies.