Interview With Team Rubicon: Veterans Doing Battle with Natural Disasters
Ryan Evans recently spoke with William McNulty, the cofounder and CEO of Team Rubicon Global – an organization you should know about. Team Rubicon deploys veteran-led teams to disaster zones to work alongside first responders. In addition to helping the victims of disasters, including those that have recently hit American and foreign shores, Team Rubicon is also an amazing means through which many veterans – to include some War on the Rocks contributors – find continued purpose through service.
Ryan Evans: What did you see on the ground in Texas and Florida that you wish people elsewhere could know?
William McNulty: We saw communities that were helping each other and leaning on each other until aid could arrive. That’s resiliency and an eagerness to bounce back, and it’s inspiring to see. Americans may be concerned about the direction of our country, but if there’s one silver lining to these storms, it’s that politics doesn’t matter. We should celebrate that American spirit which is thriving today in the Gulf Coast and in Florida. I think Team Rubicon member Niddie Miyo, a U.S. Navy veteran, put it best: “Appearances are often misleading. After a few hours of sweat and tears, we realize we share the same heart for the communities we serve and for our teammates.” Nothing can break the camaraderie that arises from shared misery, and camaraderie is what will see us through.
RE: What do you wish you had been ready to do by the time Harvey, Irma, and now Maria hit American shores that you cannot yet do?
WM: Team Rubicon Global is still only three years old and right now there are five country units in the Team Rubicon Network: Australia, Canada, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Just like in a military alliance, each country unit has different capabilities. One capability that would have been nice to have by this hurricane season is swift rater rescue. We certainly have the volunteers with the training, experience, and certifications. But it’s not yet a defined capability of a Team Rubicon country unit. Interestingly, it was during Hurricane Harvey where we first deployed water rescue boats. When Texas officials asked for anyone with a boat to help, we sent in those skilled members of our team.
RE: How much do you focus your capability development on what governments can’t do?
WM: Team Rubicon augments what governments can do by coordinating everything from spontaneous volunteers to emergency medical teams. We always work in coordination with local or host government. We never deploy uninvited.
RE: How are you using technology to improve what Team Rubicon is able to bring to the table? How much do your military backgrounds inform how you adopt and innovate in this area?
WM: We have some tremendous technology partners and two stories come to mind. We’ve been working strategically with Inmarsat prior to these disasters. They’ve been a godsend, providing us global satellite communications devices to support the life safety and coordination for all Team Rubicon personnel. The magnitude of Irma and Harvey along with its one-two punch pushed the capacity of the Team Rubicon Network to respond. We just didn’t have enough satellite communications equipment on hand for all of our teams in the field. In a matter of hours, Inmarsat quickly fielded additional satellite phones and portable satellite broadband terminals that we immediately disseminated to the Team Rubicon Network. They directly supported Team Rubicon U.S.A.’s water rescue and recovery teams in Houston, as well as Team Rubicon United Kingdom’s reconnaissance teams in the Virgin Islands and Turks and Caicos.
We had another satellite communications mishap during our response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in late 2013. I was sitting in our command operations center in Los Angeles when I received an email from our chief operations officer who reported a disturbing sight when one of our recon teams was rushed by desperate survivors seeking food provisions. The U.S. Marine Corps V-22 Osprey that had just dropped off our team – which our chief operations officer was on – could not immediately return to pick up the team because it needed to refuel, and we had difficulty reaching that team when their satellite communications unit failed. Fortunately, our team was fine, but at the time I turned to our director of field operations and said, “Let’s make sure we always have situational awareness of our teams and that we can always communicate with them.” Within a few days, InReach, in collaboration with Palantir, deployed devices that allowed for satellite text messaging and GPS-enabled tracking of all our teams.
So, technology is something that’s very important in an organization like Team Rubicon. It’s our goal to help those in need and make sure they’re on the road to recovery as soon as possible after a disaster strikes. The technology that we use enables us to track and measure, and then communicate the scope of these needs.
These technology-based partners provide us with the tools needed to accomplish our goals: organizations like DocuSign, which enables us to legally protect our volunteers and beneficiaries, to Palantir, which provides us a mobile system to track work requests and coordinate resources, to Everbridge, which enables us with mass communications to our 57,000+ volunteer base all around the world, to Box, which provides us a global information management and storing system. All of these partnerships allow us to stay at the forefront of technology.
And whether you are talking about technology, teamwork, decisive leadership, risk mitigation, or emergency medicine, the skills and experiences that our veteran volunteers gained while in the military are really the driving force of the organization. We also have many first responders and kick-ass civilians as part of our organization.
There is no better example of this than our very first operation in Port-au-Prince in 2010. Every team was led by a military veteran with squad-leader experience at a minimum. Seeing that small unit leadership in action is the reason I turned to my cofounder and said, “We have a model here. No one is doing this.”
RE: Team Rubicon is beginning to think and work globally now. Can you tell us about your plans around the world?
WM: Our focus is on expanding in the coalition of countries that served in Iraq and Afghanistan. We plan to add two partner countries to the Team Rubicon Network per year. At the same time, we’re building relationships with the 50 most disaster-prone countries before disaster strikes, so that when it does, we’re able to respond quickly and efficiently.
There is a strong cultural diplomacy piece to what we do. When the earthquake struck Kathmandu, Nepal, in April 2015, Team Rubicon U.K. deployed former Nepalese Gurkhas in Team Rubicon uniforms. At the time Team Rubicon U.S.A. had five years of experience, including well-defined processes for recruiting, training, equipping, and deploying veterans and first responders into disasters. What Team Rubicon U.S.A. didn’t have was strong relationships in Nepal. The Gurkhas acted as translators, fixers, and door openers for the broader network. I’m humbled that they’re members of Team Rubicon.
We’re now seeing how truly important it is to have strong relationships everywhere, as Team Rubicon U.S.A. has deployed a two-person reconnaissance team to San Juan, Puerto Rico. The team is specifically connecting with local Team Rubicon members, authorities, and military personnel to identify any gaps in services and to see if they can provide assistance.
Ryan Evans is the founder and editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks and the publisher of the forthcoming Texas National Security Review. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Image: Team Rubicon