When Jessica Fischer started her career at the Army Corps of Engineers 11 years ago, she didn’t plan on becoming an emergency manager. She was set on a quiet career as a Project Engineer at the New York District.
Then 2011 happened.
With two hurricanes in the Southeast and tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri, there was plenty of opportunity for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to participate in emergency response efforts led by the Federal Emergency Management Administration. Fischer volunteered for her first contingency deployment around this time.
“I was involved in emergency management a long time before it was my primary job,” said Fischer, the recipient of the 2019 USACE Civil Responder of the Year Award. “That was my introduction to FEMA, the National Response Framework and the Corps’ role in emergency response.”
Fischer would go on to serve on several other incidents during her time at the New York District, including Hurricanes Sandy, Harvey, and Maria. There was something that kept drawing her back to disaster relief missions—a sense of meaning from serving others alongside trusted friends.
“Being able to see the impact USACE can have and the hope we can provide to survivors when they talk to you was, and still is, one of the best parts of volunteering for emergency missions,” said Fischer. “These missions are where I have made countless friends across the organization and lifetime ‘battle buddies’ since you truly share a bond that only a fast-paced, emergency situation can build.”
The Corps is unique in the national disaster response framework. Engineering expertise is usually most in-demand after the disaster itself, and in the cleanup and recovery phases.
Prior to the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California, Fischer had just transitioned to her first full-time position in emergency management—her current post as Chief of the Readiness Branch at the Sacramento District.
“Our mission after the Camp Fire was mostly technical monitoring,” said Fischer. “We also assisted FEMA in constructing temporary housing sites for those who lost their home to the fire.”
Fischer was an Emergency Support Function #3 (Public Works and Engineering) Assistant Team Leader during the Camp Fire incident, responsible for getting funding, people and equipment to the affected areas and communities. Over the 4th of July weekend, she took on an additional responsibility—response to an earthquake in Southern California.
The particular challenges of working two incidents simultaneously can tax even the most seasoned emergency response professionals. Combining forces with other agencies, yet clarifying roles, responsibilities, and paper trails for each incident requires disciplined and organized minds that can function under stress.
“We had to divide resources and still make sure we were giving both missions our full attention and commitment,” said Fischer. “In addition, we had to make sure records management, funding and communication remained clear so as not to cross-talk missions and create more confusion.”
“No one can do it alone, whether we’re talking about people or agencies,” she added.
One of the District’s most frequent partners is the Bureau of Reclamation. According to Fischer, this organization is a valuable partner who eagerly welcomes the chance to work as a team. She remembers arriving on a new incident and being surprised that agencies didn’t have particular “sides” of the briefing tent—they were intermingling with their fellow public servants, already comparing notes, making plans, and becoming friends.
Fischer’s leadership of the Emergency Operations Center at the Camp Fire, combined with her work on other incidents during that time frame, led to her receiving the Civil Responder of the Year Award for 2019.
“The whole district leadership team is very proud of what Jessica has accomplished,” said Randy Olsen, the district’s chief of operations. “The selfless service she exemplifies led to her being recognized at the national USACE level as well, which is a significant achievement.”
With the unprecedented public health challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Fischer’s leadership has been invaluable at the District Emergency Operations Center, especially in the months of April and May.
District Commander Col. James Handura was asked to lead Task Force – California, one of many Corps task forces quickly organized to work with state governors. This contrasted with the typical Corps model of state-spanning districts and necessitated quick adjustment and close coordination with other districts.
“On the COVID mission, we had to partner with other districts to get things done,” said Fischer. “We were able to support other districts with funding, and personnel could easily switch between districts based on the mission.”
“This approach helped us to quickly renovate the Alternate Care Site in Porterville, California, and conduct several other assessment missions, all within about a month of time,” she added.
The colliding challenges of fire season and a global pandemic have once again called on the entire USACE team to handle complex problems in a clear and effective way. Fischer finds herself on the forefront of this effort at the Sacramento District.
“We are constantly evaluating with the command and the partners where we can alter or change how we execute so as to reduce the risk and potential exposure to the employees who volunteer to help,” she says.
Fischer notes that some of the modifications the team has made to standard practices include COVID-specific personal protective equipment, prudent reductions in the size of co-located teams, and a close relationship with the district safety office. ” Our biggest concern is the safety of our team, and we are working daily to ensure that they remain protected, prepared and supported,” she said.
The vital skills that have propelled Fischer’s rise to greater responsibility are interpersonal relations, a calm demeanor under stress, solid communication skills and an ability to work with people who think differently.
“There are many different approaches to emergency management within the federal government as well as our state and local partners,” said Fischer. “Ultimately, what matters is that we create an environment where we can quickly leverage each agency’s unique strengths to create a response that’s stronger than anything we could do by ourselves.”