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Emergency Management creates FEMA synergy

The FEMA training group at Hard Rock included tribal members from across the country. (Courtesy photo)

HOLLYWOOD – The Seminole Tribe’s Emergency Management Department continues to build on its status as a model for others across Indian Country. One of  the strategies has been to build relationships with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

FEMA is the agency responsible for leading the nation’s efforts to prepare for and respond to the impacts of natural disasters (like hurricanes, flooding and wildfires), in addition to manmade incidents or terrorist events.

Emergency Management, which is under the tribe’s Public Safety umbrella, has recently interacted with FEMA in some key ways.

Earlier this year, Emergency Management coordinators Sunny Frank and Jonathan Urtecho attended and graduated from FEMA’s National Emergency Management Basic Academy (NEMBA). Frank was the first Seminole tribal member to graduate from the NEMBA program, or any other professional program offered by FEMA.

More recently, the department hosted a group of 21 attendees who completed FEMA’s “Emergency Management Institute Tribal Train the Trainer” course April 24-28 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood. Tribes represented in the group included the Oglala Lakota, Oneida Nation, Morongo Band of Mission Indians, Navajo Nation, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Cherokee Nation, and the Tulalip Tribes.

The Seminole Tribe’s Emergency Management director Paul Downing (Passamaquoddy Tribe of Indian Township) taught the course with Mary Reevis (Blackfeet Nation), FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute tribal training curriculum manager. Downing’s staff of five Emergency Management coordinators completed the course. Of the five, two are tribal members – Frank and Rollie Gilliam. The others are Urtecho, Erik Hartl and Christina Ordiales.

Downing said the tribe is now the first in the country to have a multiperson emergency management staff with certified FEMA instructors. He said Frank and Gilliam also join a small number of Native Americans who are certified to teach any FEMA course.

The trainees learned how to teach FEMA’s four tribal curriculum courses: emergency management operations for tribal government, emergency operations for tribal government, emergency mitigation for the next seven generations, and emergency management for tribal leaders.

“It’s a service to Indian Country that we’re all instructors now,” Downing said. “You want people in the tribal community teaching others in the tribal community – emergency management from a tribal perspective. We can now be deployed with FEMA, with the blessing of the tribal government, to train across Indian Country.”

‘Building a track record’

Downing said FEMA is a bit of a mystery agency for many tribes. Part of the reason stems from the lack of emergency management programs. He said of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the U.S., there are about 80 that have a program, and of those, about 20 would be considered robust like the Seminole Tribe’s.

“When the pandemic erupted, that was an opportunity for FEMA to kind of open their eyes and [recognize that] we have 574 tribes,” Downing said. “There are only four tribes in the nation that went through the major disaster declaration process with FEMA during the pandemic.”

Downing said most tribes didn’t have the necessary knowledge or infrastructure to interact with FEMA during the pandemic, and instead would usually opt to go through their respective states for assistance.

“We’re building a track record with FEMA without having to go through the state, which often has funding advantages,” he said.

On the last day of the training, the tribe hosted a farewell breakfast for the group and a trip to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Reservation.

“It was historical. It’s the first time something like this has happened,” Gilliam said. “Having the training at the Hard Rock made it a lot more comfortable for our guests. A tribal curriculum being taught by tribal members of other nations and bands – it’s very fulfilling because the conversation is different and we’re able to teach some of the non-Natives in the room as well.”

Downing said the next big focus for his department is Florida’s hurricane season, which officially begins June 1.

Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at