Emergency responders with the Red Cross

Catherine LaFleur (right) of the Red Cross and other emergency responders in Reisterstown. The Red Cross is among the groups the Maryland Emergency Management Agency helps train. (Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam / September 18, 2003)

Officials gathered at the state's emergency operations center last night as Hurricane Isabel rumbled through Maryland were led by a former military man whose name rarely appears in newspapers and whose image rarely appears on television.

Donald Keldsen likes it that way.

Working in Spartan quarters at the Camp Fretterd Military Reservation in Reisterstown, Keldsen, director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, avoids the spotlight, enabling politicians, local officials and technical experts to assume leading roles in relief operations in the wake of disaster.

"What we do is try to make it possible for good minds to work together," Keldsen said. "We help state departments and agencies to come together as a team by helping them establish relationships."

Building relationships is a Keldsen specialty. While his background as a decorated Special Forces officer and anti-terrorism expert may have helped him earn the appointment as MEMA's director in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Keldsen can lean on his master's degree in family, marriage and child counseling to help bureaucrats learn how to get along.

Interagency cooperation, after all, is far from a given.

"The public doesn't recognize jurisdictional boundaries. They only know that they need something done," said John M. Contestabile, who directs the state Department of Transportation's Office of Engineering, Procurement and Emergency Services. "We have to work to coordinate to eliminate those boundaries."

The agency breaks down bureaucratic walls by putting representatives from 36 state and federal agencies and nongovernment entities such as the Red Cross, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., and the Civil Air Patrol into one room at Camp Fretterd and keeping them there around the clock during frequent drills that force them to simulate responses to horrendous weather, nuclear power plant meltdowns and terrorist attacks. So when there's real trouble - a whopping snow storm, a chemical fire or a hurricane - officials already know each other.

"When you put in enough 12- or 16-hour days together, you build rapport," said Contestabile, who has been working with MEMA since 1996. "And when you need something, you just get up and talk to somebody who's sitting three rows behind you."

Background

Founded in 1949 as the Maryland Civil Defense Agency, MEMA's main responsibility in its infancy was to prepare for nuclear attack. Though its mission was broadened and its name changed in 1989, the agency remains part of the Maryland Military Department. The agency's director is appointed by and answers to the state adjutant general - except when disaster strikes. When the governor declares a state of emergency, the director reports directly to him. "When there's an emergency, you're not just representing your department, you are part of the governor's team," Keldsen said.

A barrel-chested man with meaty forearms, Keldsen was appointed MEMA director in October 2001, after a year as acting director and three years as operations director. His appointment in the wake of Sept. 11 made sense because he launched the Maryland Terrorism Forum in 1998, which was an attempt to start improving coordination and anti-terrorism training among local, state and federal agencies.

Keldsen - who has a bachelor's degree in psychology and master's degree in business administration in addition to his marriage counseling diploma - prepared for the MEMA job during 30 years as a military officer and organizational consultant. He was working as a consultant to the agency when the operations directorship opened and he was asked to apply. He is glad he did.

"It's one thing being a consultant, it's another to work for the public," Keldsen said. "The mission - it may sound corny - is very noble.

"What I hadn't counted on," he added, "is I really love the work."

MEMA is a small agency. It has about 40 employees with expertise in logistics, communications, disaster recovery, emergency preparedness and readiness, and planning. Before a disaster, the agency focuses on planning, drilling and teaching. After an emergency, it coordinates the response of all state agencies, helps county and city governments, and acts as a primary contact with the federal government.

Management style

The agency's goal is to manage emergencies from the bottom up. "The boss in an emergency is the guy who's in charge of the lead agency on the scene," said MEMA spokesman Quentin Banks. "The emergency manager's job is to support that official."

In a flood, for example, the agency would coordinate with the National Guard to make sure that sick and injured people can get to hospitals and with the Department of Transportation and state police to make sure that evacuation routes are open. In the wake of a disaster, the agency might open a field office to help people get assistance in rebuilding.

The agency also helps prepare leaders at the top of the state government before disaster strikes. On Tuesday, for example, MEMA officials provided Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele with a 30-minute minicourse on Hurricane Isabel so he was ready for that evening's local news programs.

With Keldsen standing just beyond the camera lights, Steele offered Marylanders reassuring words during an interview outside MEMA headquarters. "Right now," Steele said, "everything seems to be ready for Isabel when she comes ashore."