Retired colonel named state military’s emergency manager

Staff writerMarch 29, 2013 

If a big earthquake hits, or Mount Rainier blows its top, the state’s defense will start at Camp Murray, where a new emergency-management director takes over Monday.

Robert Ezelle is a retired colonel whose promotion to the top of the state Military Department’s Emergency Management Division was announced this week.

Ezelle was put in charge of the state 911 unit in 2011 — taking over a troubled unit and by some accounts turning it around. He also has managed a homeland security grant program for the agency since 2010. But before that, his background was largely in the military rather than emergency management.

He said his experience at the Washington Air National Guard’s Western Air Defense Sector prepared him to “rapidly respond to an unfolding situation” – such as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“The pager went off as I was going through the front gate at McChord, and it was a case of: sprint up the stairs ... and something like 19 hours later, I got to go home,” he recalled of that day.

The air-defense sector watches the skies over roughly three-quarters of the country, he said.

Others with more experience in disaster response were passed over for the job. Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty made the choice after a panel interviewed six candidates out of 40 who applied.

In addition to Ezelle, those were Luis Miranda from out of state; Kurt Hardin, an EMD official who coordinated Washington’s Hurricane Katrina relief effort in 2005; Eric Holdeman, a Puyallup consultant who directed King County’s emergency management office for 11 years; Bill Lokey, a consultant who was chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s operations branch during the Katrina response; and Bellevue emergency manager Luke Meyers.

An interview panel included representatives from local, state and tribal government, including emergency management and police.

Previous director Jim Mullen retired in February.

He had dealt with numerous challenges in recent years, including state funding that declined 55 percent and federal grants that plummeted even further; ethics problems among staff that included personal use of computers; and 911 tax money wasted on an abandoned software project.

Lawmakers asked Daugherty at a hearing Wednesday about that project involving the company SAS.

“Frankly, it was just a mistake. We messed that one up badly and have taken corrective action to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said the adjutant general, who took over after the project was canceled. “I don’t think there was any evil intent. We did a pretty comprehensive investigation here, and it was really some people trying hard to come up with a more cost-effective way of managing the budgets.”

Ezelle took over the 911 unit after some $700,000 had been spent on the project. He did a cost-benefit analysis that led to its cancellation.

As director of the division, Ezelle will manage 82 employees. He faces challenges of his own, including federal cuts connected to sequestration and trying to upgrade outdated 911 equipment in more than 20 counties.

“Robert has a strong record of leadership, efficiency and integrity. He is the right person to lead EMD, and to build partnerships with the emergency management community and the citizens of our state,” Daugherty said in a statement.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan.schrader@ @Jordan_Schrader Download the Capital Update app for iPad and iPhone for a 7-day free trial.

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