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Anatomy of a turnaround: The Cook County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management

Michael Masters

In May of 2011, Michael Masters was appointed executive director of the Cook County, IL Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM) by Toni Preckwinkle, who had been elected President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners five months earlier, in December, 2010, on a platform of bringing accountability, transparency and integrity to county government.  

Masters, who earned a masters degree from Cambridge University and his law degree at Harvard, had previously served as the chief of staff of the Chicago Police Department, an assistant to the mayor and holds the rank of Captain in the U.S.  Marines.  He also serves as an adjunct professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

In this exclusive interview with Government Security News, Masters indicated that one of the best parts of signing on to the job was that he had an extraordinary boss in  Preckwinkle, who provided her constant support. With that support he has been able to recruit and hire an exemplary team and engage in a total organizational redesign of his department. That was the good news.

The bad news was that he was taking on a gargantuan task that consisted of nothing less than converting an agency that was in dire need of a strategic overhaul into a model urban agency with accountability, transparency and integrity -- a task that would likely require him to call on everything he had ever learned through his education, as well from his time in the mayor’s office, the Chicago Police Department, and the  Marines combined.

For starters, prior to Preckwinkle’s  election,  the Cook County DHSEM had been the subject of a number of investigations by various agencies, including one by the Office of the Inspector General of DHS. Moreover, as Masters quickly learned, the Department had no ability to support local, state or federal partners;  no functional training and exercise programs were  being provided to first responders; there was zero operational capacity and total financial disarray.

Adding an extra layer of complexity was the fact that Cook County is the second largest county in the U.S.,  encompassing 946 square miles, 134 jurisdictions including the City of Chicago and a total population of roughly 5.1 million people. Classified by the DHS as an Urban Area, the county is, as Master’s pointed out, “a point of interest for those who would wish harm to all of us, including our families and friends,” as well as “a locale that faces regular severe weather, including tornadoes, floods and blizzards,” all of which adds up to a situation that calls for a very committed and dedicated department devoted to homeland security and emergency management.

What follows is a step by step account of the measures that were employed by Michael Masters and the team that he put together to implement  fiscal responsibility, accountability, transparency, innovative leadership and improved services in Cook County government.

The turnaround began, according to Masters, with the development of a comprehensive planning, information-sharing, operations, logistics, training and grants management program that could effectively serve key stakeholders in the public, private, non-profit and academic sectors, along with, most critically, the residents of Cook County.

One of the first steps in the plan was to initiate an internal audit of previous practices with respect to accounting, grant management and financial transparency. What the audit disclosed, unfortunately, was that the previous administration did not actively apply for grants, and on the rare occasions when it did, management of the grants received was questionable at best. It was clear to Masters that proper management of funds is not only essential for proper administration of programs and federal grant dollars, but also will  benefit Cook County residents by enhancing regional capabilities and preparedness.

Accordingly, it was time to recruit a new grants team, one that included individuals with experience both in local and state government. The department then instituted a grants management process, which includes system checks and guidelines to ensure that efforts are in compliance with federal regulations, agency administrative requirements and relevant Office of Management and Budget circulars.

At the same time, every effort was made to address past issues with respect to procurement, property and record requirements, so as to ensure a transparent and accountable system guided by performance metrics. The team now identifies grants, applies for those for which DHSEM is qualified and provides local jurisdictions with notice of available grant opportunities.

In another regrettable finding of the internal audit, it was revealed that the Department lacked even a basic capacity to sustain itself, let alone coordinate or assist county partners or stakeholders from the public, private, non-profit or academic sectors. On a hot day in June, Masters recalls, after only a few weeks on the job, he asked to see the Extreme Heat Plan. But, despite being in the second largest county in the U.S., with one of the largest public health systems in the nation, one of the busiest medical examiner’s offices in the country and one of the most active criminal justice systems, there was no Extreme Heat Plan.

“If we fail or if we succeed can be measured in whether people live or die,” said Masters. It is that simple. “The attitude the Department had to meet that mission was unacceptable.”

Deeply disturbed by the implications of Cook County’s failures to be a good partner, Masters embarked immediately on meetings with representatives of the County’s 134 jurisdictions, an initiative that included speaking with colleagues at the City of Chicago, the State of Illinois and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in addition to individuals in the private, non-profit and academic sectors. Shortly thereafter, the Department adopted FEMA’s “Whole Community/All Hazards” approach, which translates into ensuring that the Cook County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management is positioned to prevent and protect against, militate against the effects of, respond to as well as recover from any event, whether man-made or natural.

As the Department’s internal assessment continued, Masters spent time meeting with key stakeholders to learn how he could better support them. He met with fire, police and emergency management services, with officials of federal and state governments and with representatives from every municipality in Cook County, getting their thoughts about what the Department could do as a County to serve them better. Looking for best practices, he examined other homeland security and emergency management agencies across the country.

One of the most important steps, in the view of Masters, was to be guided by three principles that he outlined shortly into the reorganization of the Department:


  • Professionalism
  • Preparedness
  • Partnerships



Professionalism, he said, involves creating a culture of accountability and transparency, so as to instill confidence in residents and partners through effective and efficient service. It requires recruiting a competent, respected and highly trained staff and people with special skills, experience and training. Operations, logistics and planning all require leaders familiar with first responder policies, unique challenges and training exercises.

Performance driven metrics and the performance management process that are now in place are vital components of President Preckwinkle’s agenda, according to Masters, and the Department has also implemented a yearly performance review system for team members.  A system of internal policies, called General Orders, standardizes internal procedures and educates employees on department systems and expectations.

In less than one year, and addressing issues raised in the Department’s internal audit, as well as state and federal ones, DHSEM has implemented a comprehensive asset tracking system, utilizing cutting edge software, digital scanners and linear bar codes. Utilizing the FEMA criteria for equipment definition, DHSEM has comprehensively been verifying and uploading the inventory of the department. To enhance accountability DHSEM has created a standardized General Order with respect to property, equipment and inventory. Following FEMA’s resource typing guidelines, the status of all of the supplies and equipment, including location and readiness, is now available to all DHSEM sections, and all information is available for independent audit.


Prior to the management changes in 2011, DHSEM had no ability to gather information related to potential emergencies or to respond directly to any occurrence. It also had no comprehensive plan in place to train first responders and to prepare for possible incidents. Two years later, Masters reported, procedures have been implemented to gather information, train first responders and prepare for possible incidents, and it has been accomplished  so effectively that the Department has gained national recognition for its competence in emergency management best-practice preparation.

The story was similar in the area of communications. When Masters stepped into his position, there was no mechanism, aside from an aging fax machine, that could be used to communicate with partners -- not just the different jurisdictions in Cook County, but between County departments as well. Six weeks later, when it started to rain, Masters began replicating systems that he had used elsewhere. Cook County invited all jurisdictions along the Des Plaines River to a conference call to discuss weather conditions they faced and support they might need. Today, the department is closely coordinating and communicating with other first responder agencies across Cook County, the state and federal government. For the first time, the County is communicating with key stakeholders, sharing intelligence and providing situational updates.

To help gather and monitor relevant information, the Cook County Incident Command Center (CCICC) has been created and now serves as an emergency response headquarters. Its duty desk, which serves as the Department’s 24/7 intelligence center, gathers and disseminates information, compiles daily situation reports and sends situation awareness updates on a daily basis on everything ranging from international terrorism events to weather updates, and as situations dictate. And capping off all these milestones in preparedness and situational awareness, the Department is currently underway in building a true emergency operations center, the first ever for the second largest county in the U.S.

In April 2013, Cook County was subjected to severe weather that caused historic crests in local river levels. But, even before the bad weather struck, the Department was working to prepare and coordinate local jurisdictions, communicating with the National Weather Service and, through its duty desk, situational awareness updates (SAUs) of the impending conditions were issued as early as April 16, the day prior to the actual conditions. The Extreme Weather Plan was implemented, and the Cook County Incident Command Center (CCICC) was activated. The department began holding regular conference calls and disseminating SAUs on conditions, as they developed.

Adding to the many benefits of the advanced preparations, the Department began pre-staging equipment, such as water pumps and generators, in concert with local agencies to mitigate the effects of the weather. Multiple local, state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard, coordinated their efforts through the CCICC to assist in flood response.

As a result of these combined and cooperative efforts, multiple institutions, including hospitals and nursing homes, were able to avoid being flooded, and kept their power. The Department has also assisted in evacuating and re-locating patients from long-term facilities, effectuating shelter-in-place plans, and aiding in response to mutual aid activations. It has also been a vital component of the response to various train derailments and other issues. The equipment that was once procured and then left in warehouses is now being actively used by first responders and the communities they serve.

In one of its most important accomplishments in the turnaround, the Department developed the county’s first-ever training and exercise program, which began with the creation of a planning and logistics section, in accordance with federal best practices. Following guidelines established by DHS, and in conjunction with both the State of Illinois and the City of Chicago, an Urban Area Training and Exercise Plan and Urban area Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) were developed. The documents outline training priorities and schedules for the Urban Area are in alignment with the newly-created Cook County Homeland Security Strategy, City of Chicago Homeland Security Strategy -- fulfilling one of Master’s core values of “ensuring standardized communication, standardized training, and standardized equipment.”

As Masters put it to GSN, “We have made it a priority to invest our grant dollars into our most important assets: the men and women who make up our first responder community.” And, in the process, Cook County went from having a DHSEM Department that offered no substantive training to one that has trained roughly 7,000 first responders!

This training is not just limited to first responders. In February, Cook County hosted a training seminar for both first responders and educators on the fifth anniversary of the shootings at Northern Illinois University. More than 617 people participated in what is believed to be the largest in-person training seminar for first responders and educators anywhere in the country on preventing and responding to active shooter situations.

“We are charged with effectively managing taxpayer dollars. We are doing so through investing in tools, not toys,” said Masters.


Having achieved many of the objectives embodied in his first two principles of professionalism and preparedness, Masters felt he was ready to dive into the third task of building partnerships with municipalities, townships, residents and other governmental partners, starting with communicating the new mission and structure that had been developed in the two years that had passed since his appointment.

“The County’s involvement in these areas was inactive and ineffectual for a long time,” he told GSN, “but now that we play an active operational and logistical role, we need to communicate effectively with all stakeholders, so that our potential partners know what resources we have available and what projects we have underway.”

Internally, a Public Safety Consortium was created to involve stakeholders from key internal departments and agencies that would be involved in almost any major incident response, from departments that deal with infrastructure, to those that deal with the criminal justice system. This entity provides an environment where all individuals can share information and best practices, engage in collaborative planning and work together to ensure the safety of Cook County.

“We’ve done significant work reaching out and offering support to local governments within Cook County,” Masters commented. “We’ve established an Emergency Operations Plan Review Committee, which shares best practices in plan creation and professional guidance with municipalities. We hold quarterly town hall meetings, where stakeholders come together to provide updates on county initiatives and to discuss various emergency management issues. Working with the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois, we have completely revised the Urban Area Working Group, an entity which is both a critical component of our regional strategy and required by federal guidelines. We’ve communicated extensively with local partners to determine what trainings for first responders are most needed and desired.

Masters was recently appointed to Secretary Napolitano’s Faith-Based Security and Communications Advisory Committee. This committee works to increase communication and collaboration between the faith-based community and government. This sort of outreach is a key component of Master’s strategy.

Recently, Cook County launched a Community Emergency Response Program. Through this program, DHSEM will coordinate resident education about disaster preparedness for hazards that may impact their community and train them in basic disaster response skills, such as fire safety, light search and rescue, team organization and disaster medical operations.

“Over and over again, we have seen the need to ensure our residents are prepared,” noted Masters. “From natural events such as superstorm Sandy to the rise of violent extremism in our country, or mass murderers who target our schools, houses of worship or workplaces, we have a responsibility to ensure our communities are prepared for all types of hazards. In Cook County, we are working to accomplish this.”

The CERP will allow Cook County to outreach directly to the residents of all of Cook County’s jurisdictions, engaging them in a community-based program.

Recently, in one of many training events, Cook County partnered with the Secure Community Network and Jewish Federation to present the first tabletop exercise for Jewish communal groups sponsored by a county government, anywhere in the country. The event saw over 60 school administrators, managers, teachers and leaders in the Jewish community, as well as law enforcement, first responders and local and federal  government officials.

Additionally, , he explained, “We continue to enhance cooperation between the City of Chicago and the County. Equally, we have developed a strong partnership with the State of Illinois. These collaborations and developments of a joint strategic plan for our urban area will allow the city, county and state to leverage resources and grant funds to further our homeland security strategy.

“For the first time ever,” Masters concluded, “the state, county and City of Chicago collaborated on their homeland security strategies; the county and city are undertaking a joint threat and hazard identification risk analysis for all of the urban Area. Additionally, Chicago and Cook County are applying jointly for grants. The city and county are working together to streamline the homeland security and emergency management systems by collaborating on equipment needs and working on ordering items together to reduce costs.”

Not a bad track record for the first two years on the job, wouldn’t you say?

That being said, the Department, not surprisingly, has a robust blueprint for the future: enhancing communications and interoperable technology for first responders, continuing to improve operational capacity. Increasing training, as well as outreach and partnerships, will be an even greater focus moving forward, according to Masters.

As he noted, “We have made a lot of progress and, while I’m very happy with what we’ve done in 25 months, I am not yet satisfied… there is still more to do.”


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