PELP Speaker Shares Leadership Lessons from Decades with FEMA

When former FEMA responder and NATO advisor Ed Conley was responding with hundreds of others at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks, he said federal urban search and rescue teams never realized they would eventually need a full-time search dog media specialist. 

Former FEMA responder and NATO advisor Ed Conley

But the search and rescue team’s media center quickly became overwhelmed by a horde of media requests for interviews with dog handlers and photos with some of the estimated 300 dogs that participated in the response at Ground Zero, the largest deployment of rescue dogs in U.S. history according to experts. The rescue dogs drew more media requests than any other topic. 

Up stepped Doug Welty, a member of the search and rescue media team, who was chosen to take the lead on media requests for access to the rescue dogs as a kind of subject matter expert. Welty proved to be so good at his job that public interest in the 9/11 rescue dogs is credited with everything from leading to more community backing for FEMA teams and solidifying their reputation as local and national resources to advancing the use of therapy dogs and helping save thousands of lives by responding to events from Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, and many other disasters. 

“All of this happened after we promoted the dog sitter,” Conley writes in the eponymous chapter of his book, Promote the Dog Sitter, and Other Principles for Leading During Disasters. “When you make a decision in a disaster, you never know how it might turn out. Doug turned out to be the right person at the right time for this unique assignment during a moment of history. Some people might say we got lucky. Yes, responders who adapt and have a foundation of crisis principles often get ‘lucky.’ They also have a way of creating positive momentum that carries over to future events. Never underestimate your ability to make a far-reaching contribution during a disaster deployment.” 

In January, Conley discussed his book, his long career in emergency management, and several proven principles for “acting decisively and leading dynamically throughout any disaster” during a Center for Homeland Defense and Security Pacific Executive Leaders Program Speaker Series event in Honolulu, HI.  

“You’ll learn more about the disaster response business by working one island incident than you will on any other event.”

– Ed Conley

During Conley’s appearance in front of PELP cohort 2301, which is set to graduate in May, the veteran emergency manager drew on his extensive experience and an “eye-of-the-storm” perspective to show “up-and-coming leaders how to overcome setbacks, develop teams, respond compassionately, and serve with integrity,” offering “stories, observations, and recommendations to those in the audience who will heed the call to make a positive difference in times of crisis,” according to a description of the event. 

Conley, now an author and coach after retiring from FEMA, is a longtime friend and colleague of PELP Director David Fukutomi, and the two worked on many disasters together including in the Pacific region.  

During his PELP presentation, Conley said he discussed working on island disasters and recommended all emergency managers do so at some point in their careers—the earlier the better. 

Conley speaking at the PELP Speaker Series event

“You’ll learn more about the disaster response business by working one island incident than you will on any other event,” he told the PELP participants. “You’ll learn to grasp the importance of logistics and the essentials of priority-setting because there’s only so much room on those first relief flights. Often everyone you encounter has been impacted. What’s more, as a responder, you too may be impacted by lack of lodging, power outages, and food and water. You’ll learn how to arrive prepared and be self-sufficient so you can make a positive difference rather than adding to the community’s burden.

“Finally, you will see community spirit in action, learn to value the public’s role in assisting their neighbors and families—which is well demonstrated on the islands—and the Ohana way of relationship building, resource leveraging, and finding innovative strategies. Best of all you can take this knowledge with you and it will help you during any future response—regardless of what that is and where it has happened.”

Conley said he was “fortunate to have the opportunity to work many island disasters in my career, including in the Pacific. I always encourage young people entering the emergency management field to seek a chance to do the same. It’s the best way to become a well-rounded and knowledgeable difference-maker in the industry.” 

Noting PELP’s “core mission to foster collaboration, coordination, capacity building, and resiliency between leaders from federal, state, and territorial governments, NGOs, and the private sector in the Pacific,” Fukutomi said Conley’s “stories and examples of leadership from his book included relatable [experiences from] disasters across the country and the Pacific that apply to leaders at all levels and virtually any situation.”  

“What better way to [meet the PELP mission] than to bring leaders together and ‘talk story’ as is traditional in the Pacific,” he added. 

Conley served nearly three decades with FEMA after joining the fledgling agency in 1989, leading teams from around the globe in response to some of history’s most significant disasters, including 9/11, Katrina, typhoons in the Western Pacific, Montana wildfires, and earthquakes in Haiti and California.  

He also managed national incidents and international emergencies with the U.S. Coast Guard, Secret Service, Centers for Disease Control, and Department of State. Appointed as a U.S. liaison representative with NATO, Conley traveled throughout Europe on emergency preparedness assignments. 

Prior PELP Speaker Series events have included presenters such as:

  • Drennan Dudley, a former member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriation professional staff who discussed “Impacts on Federal Funding for the Pacific: Lessons from Inside the Appropriations Process”
  • Jason Lim, journalist and CHDS alum who talked about North Korea from the North Korean perspective
  • James Featherstone, former Executive Director for the Los Angeles Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC)
  • Dave Kaufman, Vice President of Safety and Security for the CNA Corporation 

INQUIRIES: Heather Hollingsworth Issvoran, Communications and Recruitment |, 831-402-4672 (PST)

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