New FINS Deputy Supt., Emergency Expert
By Nicole Pressly Wolf

Sean McGuinness has come home, sort of. Hired last summer by Fire Island National Seashore Superintendent Mike Reynolds as Deputy Superintendent, McGuinness entered as the natural fit for a complicated mission. A mission he feels uniquely qualified to fulfill.

From General Management Planning (GMP) to emergency response systems to involvement with local people, McGuinness has seen it all in his 23 years as a National Park service employee.

Now 52, he started his Park Ranger career at Jackson Hole as a seasonal ranger at Grand Teton National Park, moving on to work in Mississippi, Oregon and Alaska. But born south of Buffalo in a small town on the shores of Lake Erie, he can finally visit family on the weekends.

McGuinness gained specific experience pertaining to General Management Plan (GMP) development in the 80s during his five-and-a-half year stint as Chief Ranger at the newly established Mohave National Preserve. This exposed him to a slew of issues pertaining to GMPs such as: education, interpretation and protection. He also has extensive law enforcement and emergency management issues, all to come in handy for Fire Island.

From Cactus to Concrete

Mid-career, McGuinness was lured into a different focus that would turn out to be central to future national events. After 9/11, he went on a two-year assignment to the Department of the Interior (DOI) headquarters in DC to work with the Deputy Assistant Secretary on establishing a coordinated effort, or action plan, on law enforcement and security issues. McGuinness also helped put together a central Watch Office located in DOI headquarters in Washington, DC, that monitors all activities on DOI land. In the past, the DOI had separate bureaus responding on their own. This kept the DOI Secretary out of the loop.

“The initial response to 9/11 by the DOI bureaus was done in a way that could have probably been more organized,” he said. “The Secretary didn’t feel like she had full authority to manage personnel—which includes the NPS and U.S. Park Police, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, both refuge folks and agents, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian affairs.”

Each one of the seven bureaus had their own law enforcement program doing things their own way. Now, although each bureau has different missions and responsibilities, some objectives are centralized: training, qualifications and law enforcement techniques.

“This Watch Office is one central command, so the Secretary of the Interior will know immediately that there is an emergency. She can deal with the White House directly.”

ICS Still Not in Use

Although now centralized, the DOI was still not utilizing the Incident Command System model. McGuinness assisted with teaching the staff at the DOI about the ICS and helped them write up plans to be able to respond holistically from the DOI—instead of each bureau doing their own thing.

“The DOI really wasn’t embracing the ICS—even though the Forest Service was using it for many years to respond to wild fires and hurricanes like Andrew in Florida.”

ICS is an action plan that “is all set up so you can either have three or four people on staff set up to respond to the incident, whether it by an overturned semi truck on park road or hundreds of people to respond to something like Hurricane Katrina.” Or even more if needed.

When his two-year assignment was up at DOI, McGuinness returned to the Washington, DC, headquarters office of the National Park Service for law enforcement services. Then Fire Island came along.

Fire Island And Back Again

Reynolds chose him for Deputy Superintendent for the crucial time of rewriting of the GMP—the last one was done over 30 years ago. He also knew that McGuinness’ people skills would help on Fire Island.

McGuinness arrived here in July 2005. And as he and Reynolds were dealing with the pre-Labor Day weekend, the phone ran and it was the Washington office of the Park Service. Katrina had hit. They called and asked if McGuinness could come to DC and serve as a liaison with the NPS emergency management team, to help them with all the issues they were facing with Katrina’s aftermath. He left immediately.

There were five national park units badly hit by Katrina, including the barrier beach Gulf Island, which was devastated.

“The facilities at Gulf Island National Seashore in Louisiana were erased off the face of the earth. It was down to just a few cement foundations.”

The NPS’s first response is to make sure all employees and families are safe and accounted for. And then they assist local communities.

“We made law enforcement services available to the city of New Orleans and to the National Guard. We brought equipment from other parks, like boats and helicopters. We did a lot of rescues off roofs.”

McGuinness felt guilty staying in a nice hotel in DC during this desperate time. Meanwhile, the entire team in LA was being managed by J.D. Swed, an old friend of his (“a ranger’s ranger”). Swed was the on location incident commander for the national team and sleeping on the floor in a conference room.

The response consists of regional teams, national teams and then local teams. There are also several types of units that work together, including finance, operations and logistics teams who have been working together over a period of time.

“Because they have already been working together, they can hit the town running and just bring a briefcase that is a part of their division of the response. Now most emergency response agencies are doing this— Suffolk County is set up that way and FINS is now partners with that team locally for Fire Island,” said McGuinness.

Feeling Helpless

McGuinness recalled the feeling of helplessness of the NPS teams during Katrina. They are used to “hitting the ground running. They go in and they start making things happen. They assess damage, buy lumber and take care of the residents who stayed behind. They help people cope with the disaster and get them connected with insurance companies and FEMA,” said McGuinness.

The team in New Orleans, however, was told to sit still. When they tried to send people in to assess the damage, they were told the city was under a curfew that even applies to emergency personnel for almost a week,, until the city felt they were ready. There was no response from FEMA for three days. When NPS got there, they realized what a disaster it was. The looting had begun and the stadium was filled with people that lacked bathrooms and medical help.

The second week, when they could move around, they were overwhelmed by the amount of work being done by individual companies and FEMA. “FEMA ordered up a whole lot of law enforcement people without an assignment. FEMA wasn’t sure what to do with them.”

The team in New Orleans was responsible for bringing in resources. They sent an incident team under Swed to New Orleans and another person to Atlanta, Georgia, the regional office for the S.E. region of the Park Service ,to be the liaison of those responses.

Lessons from Katrina

The biggest lesson, according to McGuinness, was realizing they didn’t have enough homework done on big incidents.

“We learned to work better from the Washington level all through government on Incident Response and Emergency Management. FEMA had to realize it wasn’t just them and the military that were going to fix it all.”

Another issue is the recognition that DOI personnel are emergency response personnel. “A lot of people down there were like ‘Why are you here?’ We have a role here because of our resources.”

One reason it took so long for NPS to gain access was because they weren’t allowed to be in the main headquarters staffed by FEMA. “They were like, ‘Who are you guys?’ And we were the ones that got them all the helicopters.”

The Katrina experience also changed another important factor. In the past, Washington said the NPS response teams couldn’t expand Park Service-appropriated dollars on local operations. The experience in Hurricane Andrew that wiped out the Everglades, Biscayne and Big Cypress, showed that the emergency response team needed more freedom to take care of anything that might come up.

Katrina changed that. “Congress recognizes to just let people do what they can on the ground and don’t worry about who appropriated what money for what.”

The Fire Island-Specific Response

After a disaster has struck, NPS is looking for employees, surveying damage assessment for the island itself and FINS headquarters in Patchogue. According to McGuinness, FINS would access their facilities because the communities would do their own damage assessments. But they are not just going to “fly over Talisman or Watch Hill; they are going to help the communities as much as possible.”

Mike Reynolds and McGuinness have the authority to help in an emergency even if the property or personnel isn’t government-related. McGuinness wants to make people understand the vast resources FINS can make available within a 48-hour period.

“We can order up equipment and people to put the island back together. And certainly if we have a major hurricane, if there is a breach, we can bring in bulldozers.”