L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs

L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs



At VCU session, Virginia emergency management leader stresses resiliency and responsibility

Emergency preparedness is “everyone’s responsibility,” said Shawn Talmadge, state coordinator of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. (Getty Images)
Emergency preparedness is “everyone’s responsibility,” said Shawn Talmadge, state coordinator of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. (Getty Images)

By Joan Tupponce

Shawn Talmadge returned to the VCU campus recently, and virtually, with a message of inclusion tied to his statewide mission.

“What can we do in our personal lives, and with our families and the folks we hang out with, to help build resilience across the commonwealth? Because it’s not just my responsibility or yours. It’s everyone’s responsibility,” said Talmadge, state coordinator of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and deputy homeland security adviser.

Talmadge, who has worked in public safety for more than three decades, was the guest speaker on Feb. 21 for “Building Resilience Across the Commonwealth of Virginia: It’s More Than Just Responding.” The online presentation was part of the Lunch and Learn series from the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, and the session was a homecoming of sorts for Talmadge: He earned his master’s degree in homeland security and emergency preparedness from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2009.

Talmadge noted that a core mission of VDEM is education, which it fulfills through programming for first responders, emergency managers, and elected and appointed officials. The mission also aligns with the Wilder School, whose homeland security and emergency preparedness students have often completed VDEM internships that led to future employment. 

Wilder School Professor William V. Pelfrey Jr., Ph.D., whose expertise in policing and public safety intersects with emergency management, moderated the recent session and noted how educational partnerships are key to progress.

“VDEM and the Wilder School are developing a program to offer education and training to newly elected and appointed officials, thereby reducing the learning curve for disaster response and preparedness,” Pelfrey said.

Talmadge also stressed the value of partnerships, linking many of VDEM’s successes to collaboration with more than 300 partners that include state agencies, nonprofits and industries. Without those relationships, “it would be a pickup game every time we face an emergency, whether it be a weather event or manmade disaster,” he said.

Shawn Talmadge, a VCU alum, is the state coordinator of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and deputy homeland security adviser. (Contributed photo)

The diversity of its partners helps VDEM find expertise during an emergency, Talmadge added. For its COVID response, the agency partnered with cut and sew factories in Virginia to produce personal protective equipment using Virginia-sourced materials.

“We would have never known that if we hadn’t reached out to industry, saying, ‘Hey, can you help us make hand sanitizer or other commodities that are at low production across the globe?’” he said.

As part of its ongoing work, VDEM is managing 28 federal grant programs that increase resiliency and hazard mitigation.

“We are building capacity by supporting our localities and state agencies with more than $2 billion over the next couple of years, and that’s both to help us pay for responses to COVID and other recent emergencies,” Talmadge said. “These grant programs are doing fantastic work.”

As an example, the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grant program provides flood mitigation assistance. VDEM is partnering with Colonial Beach to help an area along the Potomac River that faces a significant risk of flood and damage to the shore.

“That community applied for a flood mitigation assistance grant,” Talmadge said. “The fantastic news is for about $2.1 million of investment, there are now 45 homes, a fire department, a pump house for public utilities along with communication infrastructure that are now protected essentially for 50 years plus.”

He also highlighted VDEM’s focus on emerging high-tech threats such as coordinated cyberattacks, and its emphasis on targeted solutions for Virginia communities – whose needs related to public health, transportation and language assistance can vary.

“It does no good if our website is only offered in English. We’ve got to reach out to all communities in our commonwealth,” Talmadge said. “We’re monitoring our messages to ensure we’re reaching all communities and that we’re ensuring that all of our information is 100% accurate as best as we can, so the citizens and residents of Virginia are aware of what actions they need to take and where they need to go.”

And that, he said, reflects VDEM’s perspective about serving all Virginians – and asking that they, too, be of service in emergency management.

“The department’s not alone in terms of conducting its mission, and you and I are not alone,” Talmadge said. “Everyone plays a role in building resiliency.”