My next guest has served nearly three decades with FEMA, passionately leading teams around the globe in response to the most significant disasters. It also meant national incidents and international emergencies with the Coast Guard, Secret Service, Centers for Disease Control, Department of State and so many more organizations. What’s up, everybody? Welcome back to the Author Hour podcast. I’m your host, Hussein Al-Baiaty. Today, we have a very special episode. My friend and author, Ed Conley, to talk about his new book, Promote the Dog Sitter: And Other Principles for Leading During Disasters. Let’s get into it.
All right, everyone. I’m here with my friend, Ed Conley. I’m super excited about our conversation. Ed, welcome to the show. This is Author Hour. You and I have known each other for some time now, as you’ve gone through the Guided Author Program. I know you’ve worked through your book diligently. I’m super excited to share what you’ve been working on. First, before we get into all that. Can you tell our listeners, give them an idea of your personal background and how you got into the work that you’re doing? Then we’ll jump into the other questions.
Edward L. Conley: Hi, Hussein. Yeah, so thanks for having me on Author Hour. I just want to give a shout out to everyone at Scribe Media. You guys have been tremendous to work with. I just appreciate this opportunity to talk with you. So, thank you. A little bit about me. I worked for FEMA for 27 years. I was on the emergency response side. I did disasters. Before I joined FEMA I was on the Ski Patrol, on the National Ski Patrol, so I was an Emergency Medical Technician. I dealt with broken legs and cut up heads, and missing kids, and all those things. I loved being a first responder. I loved dealing with emergency medical situations. I just had a real passion for it.
I started to look around for maybe career opportunities. I stumbled across this, at the time, little known small agency called FEMA. I’d never even heard of it before. I threw my hat in the ring and applied for a job and interviewed with them. I didn’t hear anything for months and months and months. Then all of sudden, I got a call and just said, “Hey, I’d like to offer you a job. You gotta report back in Washington DC in two weeks for the start of your orientation program. Then you’re going to be living back on the East Coast in DC working on FEMA Headquarters for the next two years. What do you say yes or no? We need to know.” I’m like, “I’ll go. Okay. I’m in.” I’m married. I had two little babies. When I told my wife, she goes, “Let’s go for it.” I packed up the bags and rented a U-Haul and drove out and jumped right into it. Then I stayed there.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: How old are you then?
Edward L. Conley: I was 29.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Oh, man. You were a young back. Yeah.
Edward L. Conley: Kinda young. It’s interesting. I mean, I talk a little bit about it in my book, just that. Yeah. I was 29. I’ve come from a family that had done some public service, a lot of Navy background and military background. I’d always been interested in a public service career. I was relatively young. It’s interesting, you mentioned that, I was 29 but I was also flat broke, Hussein. I had no money. I had student loans. I was married. I had two kids. It was a real transition point in my life.
It was either, I’m going to jump into a public service career and work for this agency that sounds interesting and work disasters or not. This might really be my last chance to find a calling in a career I’m passionate about, for maybe the next 30 years, because I’m going to have to find a job. Make some money. Help take care of my family. I thought it was a milestone, maybe my last opportunity at that point in my life to really make a decision. I did it. I don’t regret it. It turned out to be a wonderful career.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: I mean. Okay. You get into FEMA, which at the time you say was a small little thing you’ve never even heard of, contrary to what we know FEMA as today, right? I got to say like, it’s been amazing watching you go through the Guided Author process, because deciding to write a book about anything, any topic, anything, you have to be able to extract the gold from your wisdom, your stories, and your experiences and present them in a way to help others. That’s a challenge. I watched you and amazing other authors go through this process, but you stuck to it, man. You stuck to the reins. You showed up. You wrote. Congratulations on that. Way to stick to it and make it, because I believe your story has to be heard.
It’s something you don’t hear on a regular basis. You don’t hear it enough of people such as yourself that work in the industry of literally rescuing other people in so many different facets, whether it be disasters or being lost somewhere and all these things. Things that we don’t think about, but we don’t want to find ourselves in, right? You turn on your courage. You go in that direction. Even at 29, you don’t know the unknown. Here you are broke, you have family, you got things to deal with, you turn on the courage button, and you go into the unknown of what is going to be your career and from the sounds of it, you’ve had a remarkable one. Who did you specifically write this book for?
Edward L. Conley: I started thinking about writing a book about six years ago, when I retired from federal service. I’ve always been interested in a book, on leadership principles, crisis leadership principles. I had a basic framework in mind. I had a goal in mind. Then I really struggled with the audience. It wasn’t till I connected with Scribe Media and I went through the Guided Authors workshop back in August in 2020 that Emily and Chaz, Hal and Tucker helped me really organize and get focused on the book. At that point, I really discovered that who I really wanted to write for those people just entering the business. People who were joining FEMA, or joining a state or local emergency management organization, people who’ve worked for voluntary agencies, people in the private sector, someone like me when I first started in this business.
Once I got focused on that, that niche, that type of audience, then things really started to come together for me. I thought that maybe based on my experience, my observations, based on the privilege and honor that I had to work so many different disasters and be around incredible people who stepped up and rose to the moment that maybe I could present and share this information, and observations, and knowledge that might benefit people just to entering the business, and to give them maybe a starting point of principles, some lessons, and some ideas on how they implement these principles that maybe would guide them through their own disasters and crises when they responding.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: I love that so much, because here you are, a person who’s gone through so much. You have a lot to share. In this industry, we’ll talk about this a little bit later, but this industry needs someone like you to share about your experiences in order to inspire the next generation, right? I feel like in today’s world, I mean, we’re facing some of the world’s most intense, what feels like, disasters. Whether it be hurricanes, tornadoes, natural things, or maybe even human made things.
Typically, when I see these things, I’m deeply impacted, right? I came from a refugee camp. I came from a war, really, I’m a byproduct of war, right? So your line of work is so crucial to humanity. If it wasn’t evident in the last couple of years, especially with COVID, it is clear as day now how important people who work in the public service, public sector where you’re serving human beings at capacities and levels that we can’t even fathom. It just showed how remarkably important all of your roles are to humanity, to the people that live in communities, state level, small rural towns even. I just want to say to you, deeply, thank you for your service. First and foremost, because besides like, “I want to be a police officer, I want to be a firefighter.”
We all have the sense to want to be heroes and help our communities, but then as we get older, those priorities shift and change about, it becomes about you, and your family, and how you got to take care of yourself, but you went on the frontlines, and you went out there and you did that work for over three decades. Probably longer than a lot of the people you know. First of all, I want to know. So you got into FEMA. You start working with FEMA. Now I mean that’s a pretty recognized organization across the US. Can you tell me about those years, those first couple of years of working with FEMA and what that was like for you? Whether it be difficult or easy. What did you have to face? Who did you have to become to go and endure the things that you had to go through?
Optimism in the Face of Disaster
Edward L. Conley: It’s interesting that you talk about that, Hussein. I know a little bit about your background, and your experiences. I know you have really valuable perspectives on this in ways that I can’t even – I’ve never experienced and I can’t imagine. I think you might agree that it’s really special to be able to be a participant in historic events. That’s something that just really attracted me to the field of disaster relief. Not just to be an observer, or read about it, or watch it on TV, or even report about it, but to be an actual participant, to have maybe an opportunity in a small way to contribute to a successful operation. Maybe help an individual or family or community get back on their feet. That just really attracted me.
Now the biggest surprise and you just touched on that is, I was wondering, and a lot of people get in this business, wondering, ‘How am I going to react?’ because you’re dealing with disasters and terrorism offense. I’ve dealt with school shootings. I’ve really dealt with some very difficult types of events, that compound effect of destruction and despair and deaths and all that sort of toll. It’s definitely important, and I talk about it in the book, you have to learn how to manage it. Right away from the very beginning, from my first operation, which was Hurricane Hugo 1989 to my very last and even while I was writing the book this thought, and this feeling just came out repeatedly. I just kept remembering all the good.
I remember all the people I met. Both to work within my agency and people I met at the community level, from other organizations, both public sector, and private sector, and voluntary groups. People who had been personally impacted, who had survived events. I just remembered the good and how people are just amazingly resilient, which is a word you’re familiar with. Just their ability to overcome the most devastating events and travel this road to resiliency, which is long, and windy, and messy and difficult and even full of change, but people can get through it and be able to meet people who traveled that journey and to see what leadership principles and skills and abilities they bring to it and draw upon that.
Then maybe, you hope, make it part of who you are and try to carry it forward and to bring that good, those good things and bring to the next event and in the event after that. That’s the thing I remember. I can talk a lot about the tough disasters and the things I saw, but gosh, I just saw the good outweighs the bad. I just saw so much. That’s why I’m an optimistic person. I always see reason for hope in every event.
Even with all the challenges we have, not only in this country, but internationally in terms of increased population in high risk areas, and we’re seeing events that are being even more devastating than they have in the past, rise of violent extremism, and the threat of terrorism, and all that. I’m still an optimistic person. I still believe in communities, in response institutions, both nationally and internationally, and most importantly the resiliency of people to confront these challenges to handle them when they occur and to overcome them.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: It’s so powerful, Ed. I love it. It’s like, what is the most powerful experience that you’ve gotten out of all of this? It’s the goodness in people. That’s so profound to me, because I feel like there’s, for example, let’s just say, right now, I’m walking out in my community, I wave hello to some of the neighbors, it’s all good, but for the most part, we’re in a weird, there’s this invisible layer where there’s, we’re more or less all strangers in some regard, right? Not all communities, right.
However, and I felt this at a very young age coming out of that refugee camp going into the refugee camp, when something tragic, traumatic, something happens, right, where it impacts not just you, obviously, the next four or five square miles around you, there’s something that does happen to human beings, where that invisible layer of strangeness, if you will, dissipates. I think for me at a very young age, it went away. I started seeing people for just who they are. I don’t think I’ve ever really looked at people as complete strangers where I don’t want to look them in the eye. I’m excited to meet someone. I’m excited to greet and introduce myself or introduce my – whatever it is, because that layer for me went away a long time ago.
I feel, as you’re speaking, that’s what came up for me, was this feeling of when something does happen, there’s an innate deeper feeling for humans to really bond and get together and figure out how to help one another. I mean, you see it all the time, right? Like the person that gets on a boat and starts rescuing his neighbors. It’s remarkable, right? Then the teams that you have that come to the table, and of course, do that line of work.
Edward L. Conley: You really hit it. Yeah. The teams who thrive to help really draw on that strength of people that they’re there to assist with and it is remarkable. I mean, that’s my experience. I’ve dealt with terrorism attacks, and school shootings, and earthquakes and hurricanes, and floods and tornadoes, and pretty much the full gamut of different types of events. I just see people time and time again, who rise to the occasion. People who oftentimes are overlooked, underestimated, or are forgotten before the event, have some inner strength to step up and have the ability to help themselves, have the ability to help their family, and go beyond that trying to help their community.
It’s just a very powerful thing. I think that’s why I’m so optimistic. That’s why I love this business so much. That’s why I love studying it and sharing my experiences with it, because I just saw it so many times. That I just believe in it and see it happening. I think if you look back to just COVID, and especially in the initial few months when the pandemic began to emerge. Especially that crazy week, around March 12, when it just seemed like the whole world was shutting down, it’s crazy and it was a really scary time. I just remember watching and I heard a lot of people predicting doom and gloom, that people are going to be panicking, there’s going to be riots on the streets.
What I saw was just a remarkable sense of almost an international community of people who were coming together and sharing YouTube videos of their experience. People serenading and singing on their balcony while they’re in quarantine, family members stepping up to take care of maybe elderly members of their community or people without homes or people who were stuck at home and uncertain. I think people are predicting doom and gloom. I saw just a remarkable international response. I saw some incredible leaders step up, both internationally, nationally, at the community level. That’s what you see in every crisis.
Part of the goal of my book is just to give a voice to that. I put some myself in the book, Hussein. But really, my goal with the book, Promote the Dog Sitter, was to try to capture the people who I saw, who stepped up and with the principles that they had inside them. This crisis hit, and because they had, I think, a core set of beliefs of something inside of them that they really, truly believed in that they were just prepared for this event, and be able to rise to the moment. You see that in every disaster, every crisis. You probably saw it when you were in the refugee camp, and escaping the war and your book, The Art of Resiliency, just resonates with me, obviously, because it is an art. It’s a beautiful thing. I’m just really privileged and proud when I see people who can overcome that. Then share their experiences.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: The thing is, there’s us rising to our own abilities. Then there’s the people who, like yourself and your team, who believe in that, believe that that will emerge in wherever they’re going, right? They know that something’s about to happen. They’re building up for a hurricane, whatever is about to happen. But you also have a deeper sense of knowing like the people in that community need us. It’s also like, I remember people that I would consider your colleagues, if you will, that helped in those refugee camps. That did things that went way out of their way to go help us get food, whatever it may be, right? Then we came to America, just lines of different types of people that helped us get on our feet and grow in the community and all these things. For me, I always tell people I’m just a product of my environment, and whoever was there to help me. That includes my teachers, my mentors, everyone is a part of me and I’m a part of them.
It sounds like, what you’re trying to do in this book, is really not only share the experiences from what you gathered, but the remarkable people that you’ve gotten to meet along the way. The teams and organizations that you got to help, but it also in a way, it’s there to inspire, right? It’s there to inspire, because here’s something that dawns on me, man, all the time, right, because I have a fear response to, we’ll say, when tragedy strikes or when things strike. I’m like, “Water.” While everybody was buying toilet paper, I was telling my wife to fill everything that we had with water. That’s when I realized I’m like, “Wow.” My fear response is so connected to that refugee camp and being in the desert, that that’s the most valuable thing right? To where here, it’s so different, right? The mindset of the people is so different, which is really powerful, because of how you grow up and the things that you’ve been through. They prepare you differently for different things.
What I feel I’ve gotten out of your book and your story is a sense of inspiration for the next generation, right? Because I can’t imagine a disaster where no one shows up to help, especially in America, in the United States. Let’s just keep it there, right? That is extremely hard to wrap your head around, because you would only hope that people show up to help the moment things happen, or hopefully even before, right? As we prepare.
I want to talk about these next two things very briefly. In FEMA there’s a whole preparation operation, I’m assuming, right? Because we, the average citizens, we hear about FEMA through the media, which sadly, sometimes it’s like, “You don’t show up fast enough. You’re not good enough,” which is honestly like I’m not going to, I don’t want to take this to the negative direction or anything, but it’s so negative to put that on people who risk their lives on a daily basis, doing what you do. I always despise that media effect, because it’s like, “You’re never good enough. You’re never good enough.” It sounds like you don’t agree with that as well, which I love. What can we do about that? That mentality and how people are perceiving this organization?
Edward L. Conley: I think it goes with the job.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Right. It goes with the territory.
Perceptions of FEMA
Edward L. Conley: Yeah. It goes with the territory. It’s something you just have to expect. Whenever there’s a big disaster, it’s inevitable that there’s going to be, help is never fast enough. You always have to remember that every disaster, no matter how big the scale, the scope of it, it’s probably the worst thing that has ever happened to somebody in that impacted area. There’s naturally going to be confusion, and frustration, and everything else. So you just have to understand that a lot of it is not personal, directed at relief workers, necessarily or the organization. It’s just FEMA tends to be, we call it the magnet for any frustration, the natural organization that everything sticks to good or bad.
We get way too much credit when things go right. We tend to get way too much blame when things go wrong. We’re just one chain in the overall link, but that goes with the territory. This relates to your question. Something you mentioned just a few minutes ago, when you were talking about the help you got and that there’s never going to be a magic wand when you’re dealing with a crisis situation looking for help. But there always is going to be some help available. Everyone has responsibility, every survivor has a responsibility to bear that in mind, to explore what’s available and how to get it and see how they can leverage and take advantage of different pieces of help.
Then ultimately, as you said, the help is designed to help get you back on your feet. It’s only going to get you to a certain place. It’s not going to make you whole. It’s not going to put everything back together exactly like it was before the disaster, but there’s help available. It’s going to be in lots of different ways, and lots of different forms, and many different programs. You’re going to have to put that together to help best meet your emergency, unmet needs. Then ultimately, this help is designed to help you get back on your feet, but after that a lot of it is going to rest on you.
I think it’s just one of the challenges that being in the political argument that we work with is to set that honest expectation and to talk straight with people about those challenges so that they can best prepare themselves either before the event or the immediate aftermath of the event. That’s going to be a tough road. Help is available and stick with it, but there’s never going to be a full assistance that’s going to replace everything you lost and to make you whole again, instantly the way you were before for that event. It’s going to be a tough process. It’s going to be a long process, but if you stick with it, you’ll get there.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Incredible. Again, I’m so grateful for your perspective. How do you see the future of FEMA, the next generation? What are the things that you feel are necessary for them, like for people who are inclined to do this type of work? Obviously, we talked about the emotional fulfillment that you get from seeing people in such a beautiful, illuminated light, despite the disaster in which they are about to go through, going through, and have just gone through. What would you say to someone, let’s say, who’s interested in this world and interested in your line of work? What would you say to someone who wants to get into that type of career? The 29 year old you if you will.
Edward L. Conley: I would say there’s a lot of opportunity in the business right now. For a couple of reasons. One we talked about is, disasters seem to be intensifying, becoming more destructive, and more frequent. We dealt with a historic pandemic. There seems to be possibility of more infectious diseases. I know there’s some concern right now with the re-emergence of Ebola. The rise of political extremism, violent extremism, always a threat of terrorism. You have huge population growth in high risk areas along the coasts where hurricanes and typhoons strike, in the wildland-urban interface where wildfires strike. We’re certainly seeing an increase in events that even a couple of decades ago, maybe wouldn’t have been that destructive, now being enormously destructive, because of population growth, and just the intensity of these storms.
The other side of it, Hussein, that’s interesting is that, especially in the United States, in terms of federal service, we’re about to go under a monumental shift in terms of massive amount of retirements. The average age of people who work in emergency management, I think is 40 up. Mostly people in the senior service, probably senior levels, are in their 50s, very close to retirement. I think we’re just going to see a very dramatic shift where the industry is going to go quite a bit younger. There’s a lot of opportunities to work for organizations like FEMA, private sector, or for your state, or local emergency management association.
Opportunities, unfortunately, in terms of increasing disasters, and opportunities also exist, because there’s going to be a dramatic shift in terms of retirements and that will create job openings and opportunities for people interested. For those two reasons, I think it’s a career that people who have an interest in public service, are interested in weather and climate and crisis management and emergency management, being part of that field, might want to take a look at. My personal pitch is that you have an opportunity in your life to be a participant in historic events. If that’s something that interests you and you want to be a part of history, and you want to participate in history, then there’s not a bad career to look at.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: I love that so much. Ed, your work and your experiences are very inspiring. I think for me, I’m just grateful, man. I’m grateful for people like yourself that work in the industry that demands such high courage, hope. These ideas of resilience that you laid out as well. I just appreciate that. These are the people that sadly, again, we don’t hear about on a regular basis, but when we do, it’s times like this, where we get to talk about you, your book, celebrate you. So on that note, man. Congratulations.
You wrote a book for all of us to learn not only about this industry, but your experiences and others as well. For me, that illuminates the hope, the goodness in people. It’s a very interesting perspective. Again if you look at the horizon and the horizon is just after a disaster, sometimes people look at the disaster, but they don’t see the horizon, which is what’s to come after the hope, the rebuilding, the restructuring, all these beautiful things. That’s where you’ve taken me. I appreciate that. Again, congratulations.
Edward L. Conley: Thank you, Hussein. Thank you very much. Yeah, you can, I’ve seen it, you’re not going to come back the same. You’re going to come back different, but you can come back better and you can come back stronger. Yeah. It’s an interesting process writing a book, as you well know. I’m glad I stuck with it. I’m glad I shared my perspective and shared my ideas. I hope that young people entering this business or people who want to learn about what it’s like to work disasters can find something in this book that helps them. Maybe I can make a small impact. But you’re right. It feels good to stick with it and complete the project. I guess just to connect the dots on that and stick with it after a disaster and just get there and rebuild. So gosh, if I have this opportunity to share some thoughts and tell some good stories about people I really admire, who the rest of world may not know about, I’m going to do it.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Wow. And you did. We’re so grateful for that. I learned so much today. Thank you for sharing your stories, your wisdom, your expertise. The book is called, Promote the Dog Sitter: And Other Principles for Leading During Disasters. I’m so excited for you in where this book is going to take you. How informative it’s going to be for our world. Besides checking out the book, where can people find you, Ed to connect with you?
Edward L. Conley: Right. My website is edwardconley.com. That’s a good way to connect with me.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Perfect. Well, thank you so much for getting on the show today. I appreciate you my friend.
Edward L. Conley: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. Wonderful to catch up with you.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Absolutely.