In the aftermath of recent hurricanes and wildfires, a Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support employee answered the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s call for federal employees to assist in recovery efforts.
Bruce Donnelly, a tailored vendor logistics specialist with the Medical supply chain, volunteered to deploy with FEMA’s Surge Capacity Force.
He recently returned from a four-week deployment at the FEMA National Processing Service Center in Carson City, Nevada. Donnelly worked in the call center, speaking to disaster victims and processing information to begin their recovery.
“I really wanted to incorporate my DLA and prior Air Force logistics experiences directly to the disaster zone,” Donnelly said. “We were necessary for all the survivors needing assistance, trying to get back on their feet.”
Answering the call
Before the call for Surge Capacity Force volunteers, DLA Troop Support provided food, medical and generator support to FEMA in the disaster areas.
“We’re already supporting FEMA in other ways, but this is the first time we’ve ever been asked specifically for people willing to support their operations,” said Deanna Rightmyer of DLA Human Resources in the initial call for volunteers.
“Any time we ask our employees to do something for others, we have so many who raise their hands,” Rightmyer said. “It says a lot about the generous spirit of our people, especially when you think about the fact that these folks willingly wanted to do this even without knowing where they might be sent or what they’d be doing.”
Donnelly was no stranger to volunteering, as he augmented DLA Troop Support’s Command and Control Center as Medical’s representative during Super Storm Sandy, according to Randall Owens, Medical’s Operational Customer Facing supervisor.
“He’s always one of our first personnel to volunteer during times of tragedy,” Owens said. “He has a great work ethic and is always looking for new challenges and ways to help. It was no surprise when Donnelly volunteered immediately.”
As the only employee from DLA Troop Support, Donnelly joined seven other DLA employees who also volunteered.
After a week of training in Anniston, Alabama, FEMA sent Donnelly to the call center in Carson City.
“I wasn’t expecting to be in Nevada when there were hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands,” Donnelly said. “But hearing from so many survivors of the hurricanes and California wildfires, it really didn’t matter where I was, as long I was helping.”
The Surge Capacity Force is a blend of employees from federal agencies who come together to support FEMA operations. Donnelly said that he brought the warfighter focus he has at Troop Support to the call center team to help their customers.
“What we do or don’t do impacts people in need, and any mistake on our part can be very detrimental to our customers,” Donnelly said. “Whether it’s the warfighters or disaster survivors, one mistake can cause massive hardships to our customer.”
Donnelly brought a wealth of knowledge from his experience with DLA Troop Support and in the Air Force. As a tailored vendor logistics specialist with Medical, Donnelly is familiar with handling customer support.
“The responsibilities of this position require excellent individualized customer service experience directly to each survivor,” Donnelly said. “Being extremely detail oriented is the key to completing any of my missions.”
Handling the emotional stories of survivors were some of the hardest phone calls, Donnelly said. But he maintained focus on the customer and understood the purpose of the service processes.
80,000 disaster documents a day
The call center supports more than four million disaster survivors around the U.S., according to Ben Ruiz, FEMA federal coordinating officer operations director. The staff at the call center listen to the survivors, explain assistance programs and process applications to help start their recovery.
Donnelly’s days involved 12-hour shifts with an approximate two-hour commute for six-to-seven days a week. The staff worked in teams, rotating around the call center based on the workload of each area of customer support.
“We start our day processing anywhere from two to 60 documents for 6,000 to 15,000 survivor claim records submitted by mail, fax or uploaded on FEMA’s portal,” Donnelly said. “After we go through all the documents and categorize them appropriately, we’re handling an average of 80,000 disaster documents daily.”
Call center representatives like Donnelly are trained to work in each aspect of the claims process so they can help each survivor throughout the entire process. However, one area of the job he was not as ready for was how to work through a language barrier with his customers.
“I have spoken mostly with people from Puerto Rico via an interpreter service,” Donnelly explains. “It was the most recent hurricane, so we have a lot of non-English speaking survivors in need. This makes it challenging because you need to be patient and pay close attention to detail to ensure nothing gets lost in translation.”
Donnelly also said volunteers needed to be ready to move because they could be on a new assignment at any moment due to FEMA’s demands around the country.
“The FEMA motto is to be ‘FEMA Flexible,’” Donnelly said. “Anything can happen at any moment, so we need to be flexible and ready to support wherever they need us most. Like the military, we need to be ready at a moment’s notice as things can change very rapidly; it can be tense.”
According to the Department of Homeland Security website, more than 2,000 federal employees have deployed since Sept. 21 for FEMA’s Surge Capacity Force. This was the second time FEMA activated a Surge Capacity Force since 2006, following Hurricane Katrina.
This deployment included employees with different backgrounds and occupational skills teaming for the same cause. It also provided an opportunity for employees to learn from one another and other agencies.
Donnelly compares the deployment and teamwork mentality to being in a military environment.
“The pride and cohesiveness that comes from these teams is pretty remarkable,” Donnelly said. “We’ve formed tight, cohesive teams to get the mission accomplished, to help the survivors get the assistance they desperately need.”
The volunteers also serve as a support system for one another.
“It can be tough at times with the long hours and not knowing what assignment could pop up tomorrow,” Donnelly said. “But by working seamlessly side-by-side with so many different people from different backgrounds and building our comradery together, we pull each other through and continue to grow stronger to help those survivors in need.”