St. Louis Character: How Sarah Russell prepares the city for disasters – St. Louis Business Journal – St. Louis Business Journal

St. Louis native Sarah Russell thought they’d be a lifer at Anheuser-Busch, where they started in the gift shop and led tours.
But, after InBev’s acquisition of the brewer, Russell lost a job as safety training coordinator.
A long job search turned up a program specialist position at the city of St. Louis’ Emergency Management Agency (CEMA), a six-person, $450,000 department that prepares for and responds to disasters like storms, floods and terrorism.
“It had a lot to do with safety and preparedness and training, and that’s what I had done at the brewery,” Russell said.
Positions running CEMA’s communications followed, and Russell in May was promoted to lead the agency, as commissioner.
Explain what this department does. Our mission is to help the people of St. Louis before, during and after disasters. A lot of time is spent on preparedness and planning for whatever hazards could strike and tracking them. Emergency managers often joke that it’s a lot of paperwork, and it is. But we also do things out in the public to let people know of what the hazards are and how to prepare for them. We’re also helping the city track how federal Covid money is being spent.
What are some examples of the hazards? The frequent ones we deal with are hot and cold weather, tornadoes, flooding, earthquakes, hazmat things like chemical spills or releases, infrastructure issues, explosions and terrorism. Climate change is another one. We look to build resiliency in the community as much as possible.
One of the functions of emergency management is a networking and supportive role. We don’t have crews that go out and respond. We have select members that may go out for different functions, but we rely heavily on partners like fire and police.
What is mitigation? We try to fix things before they happen or happen again. So after the flood of 1993, our efforts were to lessen the impact of future floods. And we’ve been fortunate that those things have served us well, with the flood wall. And the Streets Department knows when those gates need to be closed.
You also communicate with the public. It’s important that we have redundancies. We use the outdoor warning sirens for tornado warnings. We have National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration radio that can alert us on a number of different things. We have NotifySTL, which allows us to push out emergency alerts. We’re also able to have conversations within social media.
You’ve been on the executive board of the Social Media Club St. Louis. Instead of the days where you may send out four press releases a day following an incident, social media allows you to share information as it becomes available. In a smaller agency like ours, my phone is going to become inaccessible very quickly in an emergency.
Some big changes could be coming to CEMA. The plan is that 911 functions would come within CEMA. There’s planning starting for a physical facility, which would be the public safety answering point and emergency operations center, a co-locating space.
Where can we find you outside work? Down time is tricky for an emergency manager. I don’t stray too far away from the city very often because I’m always monitoring what’s going on. I try to have photography as a hobby, getting myself to actually touch my camera instead of just using my phone, taking pictures all over the city. During Covid there were a lot of classes you could take online from camera manufacturers and businesses, and my wife and I went out and did some astrophotography and tried to track the comet last year.
Before Covid I would go out with Team Rubicon, which is a nonprofit disaster response organization that helps clean up and get people back in their homes. I’ve been to Minnesota, chainsawing after some tornadoes up there, and did a couple of days rebuilding a house in Houston after Hurricane Harvey. Also some remote support of communications for a number of hurricanes, tornadoes.
You’re a musician and historian, too. I’m a trumpet player and became the go-to bugler for Soldier’s Memorial for awhile, plus some memorial services. And I always did PrideFest as well. I’ve also participated in the Pride Bands Alliance, and played in President Obama’s second inaugural parade.
I’ve also been looking into my ancestry. My family has been in Missouri since before it was Missouri. Some of my family members have been in the city since 1804 and were among the first thousand people in St. Louis. I found out that my fourth- or fifth-great uncle owned Tower Grove South, Tower Grove Heights. Another one owned Soulard. So Russell Boulevard, it was my family.
More about Sarah L. Russell:
Title: Commissioner of emergency management for the city of St. Louis
Age: 44
Education: Webster University, FEMA Emergency Management Institute, Saint Louis University School of Medicine medicolegal death investigators program
Family: Married to wife, Marcy
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