Potomac native Jeff Stern works to improve firefighting and emergency management services in every community he visits. Now he will have a chance to make a difference at the national level by putting his talents to work from inside the White House.
Stern has been selected for a White House Fellowship, a prestigious program founded by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 that fosters leadership and public service by offering first-hand work experience with top government officials. Stern and 13 other men and women were chosen for the honor based on professional achievement, leadership skills and commitment to public service. Alumni of the program include former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark.
Stern grew up in Cabin John and now lives in Arlington, where he is Deputy Coordinator of Emergency Services in the Arlington County Office of Emergency Management. He began volunteering at the Cabin John Fire Department after graduating from high school.
"I started as a volunteer at the Cabin John Fire Department and that’s where I really first got involved in public service," said Stern, who worked there for 11 years and served as captain and vice president of the board of directors.
"I had taken a year off and deferred acceptance to [the College of] William & Mary. I wound up stopping by the fire station because they had a sign that said ‘volunteers needed.’
"I went in and found a group of dedicated people with a good sense of camaraderie and purpose," Stern said. "A lot of professional firefighters there took me under their wing and showed me what the fire service was about. It’s something I really developed a passion for."
CABIN JOHN Fire Chief Jim Seavey Sr. described Stern as "an amazing, committed firefighter."
"He is a 100 percent, in-depth, intense firefighter, and you don’t see that very often anymore," said Seavey. "He has the fire service in his blood and it’s never going to leave."
Seavey and Stern traveled to Santiago, Chile, together several years ago. A member of the Cabin John Fire Department was a native of the country and arranged for the pair to fly in and teach Chilean firefighters how to organize an effective emergency response system.
"The whole country supported the trip. Santiago is a city of six million people, and even though it has six million, the fire department is all-volunteer," said Seavey. "We flew in Friday, flew out on Monday, and taught [a series of] 10-hour classes … with 220 people in each class.
"I have a huge admiration for Jeff’s teaching, and he has a similar admiration for my speaking skills, and those played off of each other," he continued. "It was a great experience … and a good chance to bond with Jeff."
The Potomac native has served as a firefighter everywhere that he has lived. In 1996 he worked for the Arlington County Fire Department as a firefighter and paramedic. After relocating to Colorado, he moved up the ranks to become a battalion chief. In 2003, he was recruited back to Arlington to help set up their new Office of Emergency Management.
Stern now has 18 years of experience as a firefighter, paramedic, instructor, special operations team leader and officer with departments in Maryland, Colorado and Virginia. He has written and lectured about firefighting, disaster response and terrorism, and he is currently working on a Ph.D. in public administration at Virginia Tech.
Stern said that the Arlington County Office of Emergency Management, his current job, is "kind of the local FEMA for Arlington County."
"Our job is to help the county government, the county citizens and the county businesses prepare for any kind of emergency whether it be a storm or a terrorist attack," he continued. "We help the county have a plan and be able to rapidly respond to any of these emergencies, recover from them and return life to normal as quickly as possible."
WHY TRY OUT for a White House Fellowship?
"I really felt that it would be a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn how the federal government works from the top on the inside," said Stern. "Even though I grew up in this area, it’s not something I’ve had insight into. I also felt I had something to add to the program with my perspective on local government emergency services."
In September 2005, Stern and five other Arlington emergency management personnel were the first local team dispatched to the city of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
"We helped reestablish coordination for their local government, for their fire department, police department, paramedic services and health care system with the state and federal and military responders that were there," he said. "We basically set up a makeshift emergency operation center and then worked to help the city of New Orleans Emergency Services staff get back on their feet."
Stern’s experience at the local level could add another dimension to the national debate over emergency preparedness.
"Much of the focus has been on the federal response to emergencies," he said. "I think I could provide insights on looking at emergencies from the bottom up."
THE WHITE HOUSE Fellows application, which is due Feb. 1 each year, includes five essays on career goals, a sample memorandum to the president, the applicant’s greatest professional accomplishment and their greatest community accomplishment. Former Fellows peruse the written applications and select 108 finalists, who are interviewed by prominent citizens at regional panels around the country. The panelists narrow the field to 30 candidates, who are then scrutinized by the Presidential Commission on White House Fellows.
"There are four things they’re looking for immediately," said Janet Eissenstat, director of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships:
* "A record of proven achievement early in their career, so they’re clearly on the upward trajectory, and are clearly rising stars;"
* Demonstrated leadership ability;
* Demonstrated commitment to community service;
* "We’re also looking for folks that have the skill set to make a meaningful contribution to the federal government. They must have some of the right academic training, because they get thrown into doing meaningful work right away."
The White House stays mum on the number of applicants for Fellowships.
"We keep that a little proprietary," said Eissenstat. "It’s a large number, but people really only apply if they think they’ve got a real shot at it. We’ve got a blessing of riches when it comes to picking from good people. It’s very competitive."
A week of interviews in July will determine Stern’s assignment for the year. The White House Fellows could be sent anywhere, regardless of their expertise.
"I’m just as likely to be in the Department of Veteran Affairs as in the Department of Homeland Security," he said.
Each White House Fellow is awarded a one-year, full-time job working in a senior government office. They participate in a series of dinners with about 100 prominent government officials throughout the year, including the president, vice president, cabinet secretaries and members of Congress. The recently selected Fellows have already met with Karen Hughes, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, and Chief Justice John Roberts for open discussions off the record.
"We discuss policy issues, leadership and how to make a difference in America," said Stern. "Then we’ll have policy trips … to get on the ground and understand the complexities of how the policies would really impact people."
"The current class spent a week in the Gulf Coast in January," said Eissenstat. "They looked at what was happening on the local level and what the federal government was doing."
Each class of Fellows also takes an international trip. The most recent group visited Panama, Colombia, Brazil and Argentina.
"It’s a good chance to see what’s happening in other countries that are important to our country," she continued. "They spend two weeks seeing U.S. policy in action and hearing from the leaders of those countries about what their concerns are."