Calm under pressure
- By Dan Caterinicchia, Dan Caterinicchia
- Dec 05, 1999
Clay Hollister knows how to manage emergencies. Hollister, the chief information officer at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, received his toughest lesson in crisis management when he and his family were taken hostage by the Palestinian Liberation Army during the civil war in Lebannon.
In 1976, Hollister was in Beirut producing pilot films for television, including Arabic versions of "Sesame Street" and "Mr. Wizard," when he, his wife and two daughters were kidnapped.
"We lost all of our worldly goods and left with only the shirts on our backs," Hollister said. "Having been through something like that puts just about everything else in perspective. There's very little I find that rattles me. It was dramatic for me, my wife and my children. If you manage to get through something like that, you think, 'What else can they do to you?' which is the same thing I thought about Vietnam. Anything that follows it pales in comparison."
Hollister served in the Army from 1966 to 1969, and completed a 14-month tour in Vietnam as an Army photographer.
In addition his Vietnam and hostage experiences, Hollister escaped a civil war in Nigeria, where he taught English as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1964.
The daunting task of overseeing the information technology systems for FEMA, which is responsible for handling emergencies and disasters nationwide, is Hollister's latest challenge. In June 1996, Hollister became FEMA's CIO and associate director for IT services, overseeing the agency's consolidated and centralized IT services for switched and voice data networks, FEMA's radio network and disaster response systems.
With Hollister as CIO, FEMA launched the National Emergency Management Information System (NEMIS), which electronically gathers information from state and local officials to help the president assess the severity of emergencies, to match disaster victims with appropriate government relief programs and to process claims. NEMIS went live in August 1998 and has been used in every major disaster since its inception, including the recent flooding and wind damage caused by Hurricane Floyd.
Hollister said he is pleased with the system's performance thus far but predicted that it will be another year before the system runs smoothly. "We're doing well with a very large system with a lot of complexities, but we're still fixing the bugs," he said. "The goal is to stabilize this program...and to [continue] producing reliable, responsive reports on time and maintain solid performance."
After his stint with the Army, Hollister produced TV documentaries and commercials, which included spots for numerous corporations and Richard Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign. Hollister still relies on his television experience to sell ideas to his staff and others.
"Being able to say something in 30 seconds is a very useful skill," he said. "I use it in briefings and meetings to sell a concept the right way. If you can't say it in a minute, you're probably in trouble."Following his work on the campaign, Hollister and his family moved to Beirut, where they stayed for two years.
In 1977, he joined the U.S. Fire Administration, where he created and managed national public education programs, including the Sesame Street Fire Safety Program and the Emergency Education Network.
Hollister's 20-year tenure at FEMA began in 1979, when the agency was created through the merging the Fire Administration and other federal programs. He has held numerous positions during that time, including director of the Response and Recovery Directorate and principal executive for responses to terrorist acts. Hollister also has won numerous awards, including the Presidential Rank Award of Meritorious Executive.
Hollister has witnessed many technology changes at FEMA, but the bottom line has remained the same. "Our focus is customer service, and our objective is to obtain the best applications technologically for the agency," he said.