Former CIA, Former Stand-up Comic Leads Disaster Planning
Lisa Chambers, director of emergency management for Dallas County, has a unique resume.
Q: UT’s Texas Exes Association just nominated you as an outstanding alum under 40. How safe should we all feel in Dallas County knowing that a kid, essentially, is running the show?
A: [laughs] You raise a good point. But you can look at a lot of leadership roles in the government today, and we’re seeing younger and younger folks. I just came back from a conference where Craig Fugate, the head of FEMA, said he wants to see a younger leadership.
Q: What is it, exactly, that you do?
A: My job is response, mitigation, collaboration, planning, and recovery. I communicate with people so that I know where our resources are and where we’re lacking. And in areas where we’re lacking, how do we get that fixed? Emergency management, in general, is all about reaching out to folks. That’s one thing I’ve tried to change in the position. We not only need to communicate regionally, but we need to know what the federal side is doing, too.
Q: And you recently even got your staff badges?
A: Yes! My first week on the job in July, we had a suspicious letter mailed to one of the courthouses, and it took me awhile to get through security, like a line at the airport. I had to get up to the floor immediately to look at what this was. And I said, This is the last time that’s going to happen. One of the things I’ve tried to put into play is, enough of this status quo stuff. Something that didn’t work well in the past, let’s get rid of it.
Q: Ken Mayfield and Jim Foster were both voted off the Dallas County Commissioners Court. Those were two of your bosses. Now that they’re gone, and you can speak freely, what nasty things do you want to say about them?
A: I came into the job not knowing a whole lot about local politics, and that’s probably a good thing. I think coming to it fresh has probably helped me. Being the emergency management coordinator for a county as big as Dallas, you can’t get bogged down in the politics. But I’m excited about the new judge, Clay Jenkins. I’ve talked to him several times. And I’ve heard great things about Elba Garcia.
Q: You’re handling my hardball questions extremely well. Is that something you learned while working in the CIA?
A: [laughs] Yeah, there’s a whole class on that.
Q: You learn how to kill a man with your bare hands. And you learn how to handle really tough questions from the media.
A: I worked in the CIA spokesperson shop for a while as a junior person, obviously. I started out in the clandestine service and went through that training and then got pulled into the spokesperson office. Then I ran a program in Japan with the intelligence community.
Q: But before all that, you dabbled in the comedic arts?
A: Dabbled being the key word. I did, yeah. In New York City. I was a regular warm-up act at Comic Strip Live and other clubs in the city. I was on Letterman once.
Q: What about stand-up applies to your job today?
A: You gotta think on your feet, and if something’s not working, you have to change focus immediately. In the stand-up field, it’s flying tomatoes. Here it’s dealing with how fast the news moves.
Q: Last question, then. You’ve got access to something called the EM Vehicle. What is it, and can I get a ride in it?
A: Yes, you can! The Emergency Management Vehicle is a big Ford Expedition. It has all the bells and whistles: the lights, the horns, the sirens.
A: It doesn’t have lasers. But we can probably get a grant for that.