Disaster response: Emergency management chief shares experience, advice

By Beth Reece

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Jeff Finlay believes regret is a heavy burden for those who wish they’d heeded the warnings of a storm like Hurricane Katrina. 

“If you don’t evacuate or seek shelter and all of a sudden you become a victim because of what amounts to stupidity and somebody risks their life to save you… how are you going to feel if that person dies in the line of duty trying to help you? That’s an awful lot of guilt to carry around for the rest of your life,” he said.

The chief of security and emergency management for Defense Logistics Agency Distribution Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania, respects Mother Nature’s power. As a third-grade boy, he stood next to his mom in a Sears parking lot in Cincinnati, Ohio, gawking at a black, ice cream cone-shaped funnel in the distant sky. Not the skinny, spaghetti string-looking tornado he knew from Dorothy’s farm on the Wizard of Oz, the young Finlay felt its menacing presence. It became one of 148 tornadoes that smashed through 13 states in 24 hours April 3, 1974. According to news reports, as many as 15 separate tornadoes touched ground simultaneously during the 1974 Super Outbreak. 

Three years later, Finlay’s neighborhood endured blizzards with near-hurricane strength winds and extreme cold. Over 30 inches of snow piled up on the car-lined streets and power blacked out for days. The Catholic school he attended closed for more than a week. Instead of playing in the snow with his buddies, Finlay shoveled walkways for his elderly neighbors. 

“I was helping those who needed to get out to refill medications or who needed a path cleared so they could be checked on,” he said. “It’s when I got my first taste of giving back to the community.”

When neighbors tried slipping Finlay $5s or $10s in gratitude, he politely replied, “No thanks.” So began his lifelong dedication to community service and public safety. He became a fourth-generation firefighter after pursuing a pre-med degree at the University of Cincinnati. Now at DLA, he provides security for warfighter material in restricted areas, keeps employees updated on potential weather threats, and guides them through preparations for natural and man-made disasters. 

Beyond DLA, he serves on Pennsylvania Task Force One, one of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 28 urban search and rescue teams, as well as several local, state and federal incident management teams that help emergency responders bring order to the chaos that follows an emergency.

“A lot of local responders get overwhelmed by large-scale incidents, so we help them come up with a plan for the people in their affected communities,” he said. 

He has over 5,000 hours of emergency response related training and often passes his knowledge to others through education programs offered by FEMA, the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy and other agencies. His disaster response experiences include the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center; tornado impacts in Ohio and Pennsylvania; hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and Irene; floods in southcentral Pennsylvania in 2018; and blizzards that blanketed Pennsylvania in 2017 and 2018. 

People choose to stay in a storm’s path because they’ve withstood previous ones or can’t get past the heartache that comes with leaving a home and area they’ve lived in all their lives, Finlay said. He understands the urge to remain, having seen devastation darken people’s faces as they’ve realized their entire home is a pile of sticks and debris. Gone were the irreplaceable baby pictures and heirlooms of loved ones long dead. With them vanished important documents, all the things one amasses through the years. But material items shouldn’t be a priority when lives are on the line, Finlay said. 

“I get that people have strong ties to their homes and some don’t have the capacity to get out, but there are so many resources now to help people get out the door. There are pet-friendly shelters. And efforts are even taken to make sure people going into shelters don’t have criminal activity so parents know their kids are safe there,” he continued. 

Though man-made disasters like active shooter events can be difficult to plan for, Finlay recommends people pay attention to news reports and events like National Preparedness Month, which is held every September to promote disaster planning. He participates in safety fairs at Tobyhanna to point out simple steps employees can take, such as creating grab-and-go kits with items like toiletries, prescription medications and spare clothing. 

“Until someone’s in a position where they’re the one stranded, they usually don’t appreciate people like myself preaching about this stuff,” Finlay said. “It’s still important though for people to be prepared at home, at work and even when they’re en route.” 

Stashed in Finlay’s office is a cot, sleeping bag, pillow, change of clothes and food – all items he was grateful to have during recent snowstorms. During a March 2017 blizzard, he remained at the depot for four days. In March 2018, 30 DLA employees and 500 Tobyhanna Army Depot employees were trapped at the depot for over 24 hours due to a late winter nor’easter that crippled the community.

“When we did our building design, I pressed for a shower and a generator because I knew at some point we’d end up needing them. Both of them have been used because of incidents in the past, even simple power outages,” he said. 
 
Knowing alternate routes is another tip he gives when teaching emergency preparedness. If nearby Interstate 81 is closed, for example, employees should have a third route in mind because trucks are likely to clog secondary roads. And elevation means nothing if storm drains are inundated and water can’t dissipate. “I live and work in elevation, but we still get localized flooding that can be dangerous.” 

Employees like Richard Schloendorn, environmental and occupational health and safety manager at DLA Distribution Tobyhanna, have come to appreciate Finlay’s passion for emergency preparedness. When a tornado was sighted near Scranton earlier this year, Finlay shot Schloendorn and others he knew lived in the area a text message warning them to get to a basement. 

“If he knows something is in our path or could be, he’ll send us a quick warning telling us to be on the lookout for life-threatening conditions or to seek safety. I grew up in this area and I never would’ve thought of Scranton getting a tornado, but it did,” Schloendorn said. “He looks out for us.” 

Finlay’s zeal for serving others is in his blood, he said. The men in his family have been firefighters, police officers and Marines, and as a young boy he hoped to follow them into public safety. A black-and-white photo of his great-grandfather on a horse-drawn firefighting vehicle in 1911 reminds him of the influence those men had on his upbringing.

“I just got used to seeing them helping the community and not expecting anything in return. It’s naturally rewarding,” he said. “And at some point I might be in a position where I’m the person being helped. I’ve been fortunate enough to be more on the giving side than the receiving side.”

Guidelines for preparing for and surviving natural and man-made disasters are available at www.ready.gov. More information on National Preparedness Month is available at www.ready.gov/september

Editor’s Note: This is the third and last story in a series of National Preparedness Month articles about Defense Logistics Agency employees who’ve experienced a natural disaster.