Emergency Management in Philadelphia: a Q&A with Adam Thiel

January 27th, 2021

Zoë Linder-Baptie

As the sixth largest city in the United States, Philadelphia faces a myriad of risks due to its major transportation corridors, including two rivers, and the nearby technological hazard of the former Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery. We also face extreme weather on a regular basis. Last fall we sat down with Adam Thiel, Director of the Office of Emergency Management of the City of Philadelphia, to learn more about his role with our home city. This interview has been edited and condensed.

What is your role for the City of Philadelphia?

My first title is Deputy Managing Director of the City of Philadelphia, which is technically also the County of Philadelphia. My second title is Fire Commissioner of the Philadelphia Fire Department which has 3,300 response personnel, including firefighters, EMTs, paramedic and dispatchers. The City faces over 350,000 emergency incidents a year, with anywhere from 800 to 1,000 a day. These incidents include all of our response services arising from any hazards, including flooding. The third hat I wear is Director of the Office of Emergency Management. The OEM has 35 full time and 70 part time staff as we have continued to scale up for COVID-19 response support. OEM’s responsibility is to help prevent, prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters and catastrophes. We have a big mitigation component which requires us to regularly facilitate cooperation and collaboration with many other City agencies.

What risks does Philadelphia face?

Philadelphia was originally designed and built as fire safe city and every year we stage fire prevention week during the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. We have been lucky never to have had a great fire, so a lot of the original building stock from the mid-1800s is still intact. That said, in 2020, fires caused 34 deaths, hundreds of injuries, and displaced more than 2,000 people from their homes.

On August 4th, 2020, Hurricane Isaias hit Philadelphia with a tropical storm level winds and caused major flooding. We had 200 water rescues that day.

Anecdotally, we’re seeing more extreme weather incidents, and we know the science supports this. Both the frequency and severity of the incidents are increasing. During Hurricane Isaias we also experienced a tornado. These events can cause severe damage but often don’t meet the federal threshold for disaster assistance.  But weather incidents are not our only responsibility. Last summer, severe weather was occurring at the same time as the City was responding to ongoing civil unrest and continuing to respond to fires.

The OEM is also continuously supporting the City’s general recovery efforts – from making sure that students had access to laptops as their school days remain virtual, to building the alternate care sites for medical attention, to staffing hotels set up for isolation and quarantine. In addition to response and recovery to emergency incidents and pandemic support, the OEM also was tasked with preparing for the November 2020 election. We’re always working behind the scenes. Normally a lot of our activities are around planning. We convene a lot of different local, state and federal agencies as well as non-profits, like the Red Cross.

What efforts have been going on at the city level in relation to climate risk?

The OEM has been heavily involved in mitigation, prevention, and preparedness efforts. Our office regularly works with the Floodplain Manager and Sustainability Office. OEM is the point of coordination with the state and federal agencies to help apply for and grant assistance for those who were flooded. We successfully apply for grants (like pre-disaster hazard mitigation from FEMA), help with logistics of supply chains with the Army Corps of Engineers and Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection after events like the flooding in Eastwick after Isaias, all to try to mitigate the impact of hazards upfront, and to support the response and lead the recovery efforts.

It’s also important to realize that response and recovery is even more complicated due to the social distancing guidelines for COVID-19. The City has arrangements to make noncongregate sheltering available and we’ve been able to use resources provided by hotels and the Red Cross.

It has been noteworthy that this year has highlighted a lot of disparities in the long history of the City. We know about these and deal with these as firefighters and paramedics, and now other people have seen them come to light. The only acceptable response is an equitable response.

What advice do you have for residents of Philadelphia to be better prepared?

The main thing is to be prepared and when it comes to disaster events, stay informed, make a plan, and ideally have a kit for 48-72 hours with food, water, and medication. As Ben Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Please stay informed, follow @PhilaOEM on twitter, sign up for Ready Philadelphia, and check out the resources on our website: https://www.phila.gov/departments/oem/.

How would students at the University of Pennsylvania or residents of Philadelphia find out about what OEM is doing?

It would be great if they followed @PhilaOEM on twitter. They can also sign up for the Ready Philadelphia notification system or check out our website.