Phila.’s emergency director gets ready for the challenge of a papal visit

Samantha Phillips shepherded the city through hurricanes, terror threats, and the deadly Amtrak derailment in May.

Recently she faced a slightly smaller challenge: persuading the Secret Service to allow water bottles during Pope Francis’ appearances on the Parkway.

Phillips, the city’s director of emergency management, envisioned a crowd of 1.5 million people side by side on an 80-degree September afternoon. There would be elderly visitors, children, and families standing for hours. Water bottles – though prohibited by Secret Service at large events – were non-negotiable.

“We said, ‘Here’s the compromise – no glass bottles, we get that, but what’s worked for us in the past are refillable water bottles,’ ” she said. “Preventing mass dehydration sort of outweighs whatever the water bottle security concerns are.”

Phillips, 33, has been at the core of planning security and logistics for Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia Sept. 26-27, from the smaller details, such as what people can bring in (Water bottles: yes. Selfie sticks: no) to determining the size of the security perimeter around the event.

In any National Special Security Event such as the pope’s visit, the Secret Service leads the planning. The Office of Emergency Management’s focus is less on Pope Francis’ safety and more on preparations for how the city would operate and respond to any crisis or disaster with as many as 1.5 million extra people.

“Certainly terrorism is Number One on people’s minds, but we have to really look at the complement of things that could negatively change this event,” she said. “If a water main breaks, it’s going to be very difficult to get heavy equipment in for repairs.”

A “master of disaster,” as Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison calls her – Phillips was the point person during the Amtrak tragedy providing updates throughout the week with coolness and clarity.

“We’ve been working with her for a while, but on Amtrak everyone else saw her impact,” Gillison said.

Phillips was on the scene within 20 minutes of the derailment, in charge of orchestrating her office’s response and notifying Mayor Nutter and his staff. She helped set up a friends and relatives center at the Webster School in Kensington and started the process of patient tracking and accounting for everyone who was on the train, working with detectives and the Medical Examiner’s Office. That process was complete within 36 hours, for which the National Transportation Safety Board commended Philadelphia.

On July 4, Phillips worked 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. during the annual Wawa Welcome America festival, an event that resembles the papal visit in set-up, although it brings in only a fraction of the crowd expected for Pope Francis.

From the joint operations center at 16th and Arch Streets, representatives from multiple agencies watched live-streamed video from the event and monitored calls and emergency radio.

Outside, police practiced how they would mobilize in the event of a Parkway evacuation. Medical teams introduced a tracking system that allows them to better share information about a patient.

Phillips wandered in and out of secure areas, exchanging hugs and handshakes with staffers.

“We really do become a family,” she said. “Pope planning takes up 12 hours a day. The trash guys and the bomb squad guys are best friends at this point.”

Like most of her team, Phillips has not had a normal Fourth of July since she started working at the Emergency Management Office in 2007.

Born in Manhattan, the second of three children, Phillips was raised in the Hudson Valley and went to undergraduate and graduate school in Washington, D.C., studying international health policy for her master’s degree. She worked for AmeriCorps in 2004 and 2005, stationed in New Orleans, and was dispatched to an onslaught of hurricanes in Florida. While directing distraught homeowners to assistance programs, she caught the emergency management bug.

The adjustment to Philadelphia wasn’t easy. “I hated it at first,” she said. “I started the lowest on the totem pole.” One of her first projects was devising a plan for pet emergency preparedness. The gig was not stimulating, even for a dog lover. Phillips lives in Bella Vista with her boxer mix, Rox.

In time, Phillips moved up to project manager, deputy director, and director. Now she has two federally designated National Special Security Events within a year – the papal visit and the Democratic National Convention in July. “People don’t ever have that in their entire careers,” she said. “These people here are writing their tickets to go and run the world.”

In her three years as director, Phillips has continued an overhaul of the office, breaking the 30-person staff into four divisions. She ushered in an inventory system for emergency vehicles and took better advantage of state and federal relief money. The city now recoups about 75 percent of what it can get for disaster relief, up from about 30 percent before she became director, she said.

MaryAnn Tierney, director of FEMA’s Region 3, which includes Pennsylvania, directed the office from 2006 to 2010.

During a bad snowstorm in 2009, paratransit could not operate and patients in need of insulin were in a panic. Tierney put Phillips on the case.

“She led the effort to bring together fire and EMS to find out how many needed dialysis on that day and how we would get resources to them,” Tierney said. “When she took it, I knew we were set.”

Tierney said Phillips understands how to coordinate with other agencies in a largely male-dominated field.

“Having a young woman – that’s not as prominent as you would think in the world of emergency management. It’s a wonderful opportunity for people to see: Here’s this really smart, talented woman leading this really large organization and excelling at it.”

Phillips says she does not have a “biggest worry” for the papal visit as much as a “latest worry.” Will trucks be able to supply stores with the food that crowds will need? Could there be a hurricane?

Will the crowds match what has been planned for? The Secret Service recommends seven square feet per person, which Phillips said the Parkway can hold if one million to two million people show up.

Planning for huge events like Francis’ visit sometimes means having to bend policies in the name of safety. Camping, which is prohibited in Philadelphia, may be allowed in approved areas.

“The city has been great,” she said. “You don’t always see that. People have different schools of thought on emergency management because so much of what you do is planning for something that may not happen.”

But when something does happen, it’s often difficult for her to deal with the emotional toll of a crisis until weeks after she has led the response to it.

The Saturday after the Tuesday Amtrak crash, Phillips was in her office answering questions from the NTSB about Philadelphia’s response when she started to feel the weight of the disaster.

“I was so worn down from Amtrak all week, and I remember some of their questions just had me upset, like were they second-guessing everything we’d done? I called my mom and I said, ‘Did I mess up here?'”

Her mother assured her, as did her boss, that she had not.

“Everything went smoothly because she was ready,” Gillison said. “I think we were better for our response as a city because she was able to do what she was prepared to do.”

Via the Inquirer

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