‘You Can’t Be All Things to All People’
By Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
Bruce Fitzgerald seemed destined for a career in state government.
From the age of 5, he spent a weekend each summer milling around the Maine state capitol learning about how a bill becomes a law. His mother Betsy, a high school history teacher, coordinated the YMCA Youth in Government program. In that program, high school students from around the state would elect a governor, fill the Maine House and Senate and carry out a model legislature.
“I would go in there with her and just be around the system and the process for pretty much all the years I was growing up,” said Fitzgerald, 33, now the deputy director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency and a 2012 CSG Toll Fellow.
By the time he graduated high school, he had been through the program about 12 times. The YMCA gave him an award for being the longest running member of the Youth in Government program.
“I learned the process of how a bill becomes a law and the legislative process,” he said. “I always paid attention to current events. Growing up in a house with a history teacher and a political science teacher, I couldn’t avoid it.”
That early brush with governance moved him to major in political science at the University of Maine at Orono and then to Washington, D.C., for a stint as a congressional staffer.
He met the director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency while working in Washington and ended up taking a job working on Homeland Security grants. He has been with the agency for about 10 years total, with a two-year break working for a private company.
Fitzgerald acknowledges that he didn’t even know emergency management was a profession before joining the agency. Now, he realizes just how important it is.
The agency handles all emergency management activities, including planning, training and exercises, and works with special groups such as the HAZMAT team and search and rescue teams. The agency also works with the Coast Guard and Border Patrol as part of its homeland security efforts.
When a disaster strikes, the emergency operations center is filled with people from different agencies all working on the same problem.
“That’s one of the things that encourages me about working in government,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s sometimes a very heated environment and people are not always on the same page or are protecting their own piece of the pie, but when we have a disaster, everybody leaves that at the door and they all walk in and go to work.”
Fitzgerald said it’s important to build those relationships before a disaster strikes. “You can’t be meeting somebody for the first time in the middle of a disaster,” he said.
One of the best things about working in emergency management, Fitzgerald said, is that it’s a very apolitical job.
“I tell people we’re like Switzerland,” he said. “As far as working with first responders, we’re not cops and we’re not firemen and we’re not EMS. We’re kind of the neutral ground and we’ve been able to build bridges around these different disciplines that don’t always get along well together.”
But the job also has its challenges. It’s a small agency with about 30 people wearing at least three different hats. The budget is small and is dependent on federal grants. That means the agency has to size whatever initiative—whether through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security or the Federal Emergency Management Agency—to fit the state.
“What we end up doing is picking and choosing what works sense for Maine and either implementing certain things fully and not spending as much time on other aspects or only being able to do a few core tasks,” said Fitzgerald. “What is going to give us the biggest bank for our buck in the state of Maine and deliver the most value, but also makes sense?”
Working with such a small staff, Fitzgerald has learned a key piece of advice: Pick your staff well.
“If you are a leader, be it a director of an agency or a commissioner of a department, whoever is your senior staff you really have to trust them and you have to know that they can get things done. When you are a leader and you can hand-pick those people, make sure you have a solid group of people around you.”
He’s also learned you cannot be all things to all people. You just try to make good decisions that will be fair.
“Fairness has always been important to me,” he said. “Managing grant programs, trying to make sure the decisions you make benefit the most people across the whole state. At the same time, there’s always going to be somebody who doesn’t agree or doesn’t think they got what they were due.”
Since you can’t satisfy everybody, Fitzgerald said, “make rules that are as broad as possible and apply those fairly.”
The Toll Fellows program, he said, was a good illustration that policymakers in other states face many of the same issues as Maine. It also gave him hope for the future.
“It’s nice to know that there’s a lot of dedicated people out there and we’re all trying to do our best for our public,” said Fitzgerald.