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Hill coordinates emergency efforts with homeland security

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John Hill, executive director of the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, sits in his office in the Indiana Government Center on Washington Street in downtown Indianapolis. Mike Wolanin | for the daily journal
John Hill, executive director of the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, sits in his office in the Indiana Government Center on Washington Street in downtown Indianapolis. Mike Wolanin | for the daily journal

His job was to ask the governor to deploy the National Guard during an early January snowstorm, and now his staff is requesting federal money to cover the costs of plowing streets around the clock and other cleanup.

John Hill, executive director of the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, spends much of his work time on the phone with Gov. Mike Pence and meeting with representatives from the Indiana Department of Transportation, National Guard, Indiana State Police and other state agencies. In his first year on the job, he had to help Indiana dig out from one of the worst winters in decades.

His goal is to prevent emergencies, such as school shootings, and help communities take care of themselves as best as possible when natural disasters hit. When communities need help from the state, he tries to ensure they get it.

Hill’s department gives millions of dollars in safety grants so local schools can afford to hire school resource officers, install panic buttons and build secure entrances to buildings. His staff also is designing emergency training programs for school employees, so they can lead students in regular drills, similar to fire drills, to prepare for tornadoes and shootings. A child hasn’t died in a school fire in decades in the U.S. because monthly fire drills work, he said.

The Greenwood resident also leads efforts trying to plan two or three days in advance how to help Indiana residents during major storms, such as the rash of tornadoes that hit the state last year. That can mean deciding to activate the National Guard, which can take up to 12 hours because the part-time soldiers have to leave their civilian jobs and get to the emergency.

The Hill File

Name: John Hill

Title: Executive director of the Indiana Department of Homeland Security

Job start date: Jan. 15, 2013

Age: 62

Residence: Greenwood

Family: Wife of 42 years, Pepper; sons, Nathan and Micah

Experience: Worked in roles ranging from road trooper to major for the Indiana State Police for 29 years; worked for the U.S. Department of Transportation; started Hill Consulting and helped commercial busing and trucking companies improve safety standards

His department has meteorologists watching the weather so he has an idea in advance what the state will need to do. He can’t wait until the day of a disaster to decide to activate the National Guard, he said.

In January, he made sure the National Guard was on call in advance of the winter storm, so when local ambulances and police cars got stuck in foot-deep snow in central Indiana, military Humvees were available to pick up a resident having a heart attack and other people stuck at home without heat.

After the tornadoes in November, Hill talked with representatives from the state correction department, which provided manpower for removing debris, and INDOT, which sent trucks for moving the wreckage of a collapsed fire station and homes in Kokomo. He was responsible for making sure they coordinated their efforts, including what the state police did to block and guard entrances to neighborhoods so looters couldn’t get in.

He reported what he learned from each department to the governor.

During January’s snowstorm, which dumped 11 inches of snow on Greenwood and had record negative temperatures, he talked to the governor several times each day to keep him updated on emergency work and help him decide whether to ask President Barack Obama to declare it a disaster. Declaring the snowstorm a disaster would qualify parts of Indiana for federal reimbursement for emergency work.

Hill does a lot of coordinating and communicating, which means attending meetings in a locked room in the state government building, talking with the governor at least weekly on the phone and making sure the National Guard, INDOT, state police and other agencies work together during emergencies.

He’s learned from experience what happens if they don’t work together. Hill worked in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina and found desperate residents who felt trapped because they couldn’t buy gasoline for their cars and were nearly rioting.

He also saw eager volunteers who came from across the country to help hurricane survivors. But when their efforts weren’t guided, they turned into extra people for local officials to figure out how to feed and house and who arrived in cars that clogged roadways.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency offered to help in three days, but Hill was able to get faster action at the state level. He contacted the National Guard and trucking companies to bring tankers of fuel within 36 hours. The local panic dissipated.

“You’ve got to be able to coordinate response immediately,” he said. “We know we own this disaster ourselves. Learning that firsthand was a tremendous learning experience.”

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