From planning for a hurricane to developing vaccine distribution ideas, every day is different.
VIRGINIA BEACH – Erin Sutton’s days look very different depending on the Commonwealth’s emergency circumstances. As the newest chief deputy at the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM), she is always on call.
VDEM handles everything from flooding, hurricanes and tornadoes, to human-made disasters such as hazardous waste spills or a plane crash.
On a typical day, Sutton has her hands in a little bit of everything across the state. In the morning, she may start by looking at the forecast in the topics and preparing for future hurricane provisions, and then before lunch, she hops on a call with all of VDEM officials to get regional updates. After lunch, she may have a meeting about the election, where administrators discuss what is needed in preparation for November 3. By the afternoon, she is on a COVID-19 call discussing what plans are in place for a vaccine and how to implement one when it is ready.
“VDEM handles responses preparing for responding to and recovering from all disasters in Virginia,” she said.
Governor Northam appoints the position, and Sutton is only the second woman to become chief deputy, and also is the first woman to transition into the role from a local government.
“It feels pretty awesome because emergency management has traditionally been a male-dominated field,” she said. “Having women come up through the ranks and then having the opportunity to be the second woman in this position and showing that women in emergency management is growing and expanding is just a great opportunity.”
Switching over from Virginia Beach
Prior to her new role, Sutton served as Virginia Beach’s emergency manager. Starting that role in 2014, she led the city’s response to hurricanes, the Virginia Beach shooting, and the pandemic.
“I think my experience there helps the state folks who may not have worked at a local level understand the challenges that locals may be dealing with for a particular event.”
While Sutton has hit the ground running on her new role, she said starting a new job during a global pandemic is hard.
“I am a people person, and I like to get out in the field and meet folks face to face; that is definitely the biggest hurdle for me right now,” she said.
However, Sutton says that she is optimistic about the future.
“I think the biggest opportunity moving forward is really being an advocate for the locals and helping to maybe work through some challenges that locals and VDEM have had in the past. [I] have been in emergency management and emergency planning for the last 16 years, and the last five years been really busy, and locals have been dealing with a lot. I hope bringing my boots on the ground perspective will help localities going forward.”
On any given day, emergency management is a stressful environment to work in, and Sutton says she has had to learn how to handle that.
“I have to learn to really leave it at the front door,” she explained. “To spend time with family and friends and take that time to decompress because when you are dealing with multiple events a tthe same time, it can be really hard on you and your family,” she explained.
Erica Turman is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.