Vilma Schifano Milmoe ’76 Found Inspiration at Wilkes For Public Service Career
by Helen Kaiser
Ask Vilma Schifano Milmoe ’76 what inspired her to seek a career in public service and emergency management and she traces it to events in June 1972.
It was the summer before she was to join her two older sisters, Josephine Schifano Finlayson ’73 and Ann Schifano Nista ’74, at Wilkes College. A native of nearby Pittston, she was excited to be an incoming freshman majoring in political science.
The forces of nature intruded, in the form of Tropical Storm Agnes, giving the young woman a real-world education about disaster management and recovery before she even entered a classroom. Described then as the nation’s worst natural disaster, more than a hundred people were killed and at least 387,000 people were evacuated. Wilkes-Barre was the hardest-hit community in Pennsylvania.
“It was traumatic,” Milmoe recalls. “My father’s restaurant was destroyed by water which had risen eight feet over the roof.”
Wilkes suffered flood damage to all but one of its 59 buildings, and losses totaled more than $10 million ($57 million in today’s dollars). Witnessing Wilkes President Francis J. Michelini rally the campus community to pitch in with an all-out recovery effort had a striking effect on Milmoe.
“ ’Dr. Mike’ emulated the best in public service during that time,” she says. “It was empowering for us students in helping to build our own public service and leadership skills during those challenging times on campus.”
Four decades later, Milmoe has an accomplished career in emergency management. She is senior policy advisor for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Federal Emergency Management Administration’s Emergency Management Institute, the nation’s flagship education and training site for all-hazards emergency management and disaster response. The institute offers training to the public and private sectors in disaster prevention, response and recovery.
In November 2015, she was one of six women inducted into the International Network of Women in Homeland Security and Emergency Management Hall of Fame for her lifetime achievements in emergency management. The Hall of Fame honors women who are pioneers and leaders in the field of homeland security and emergency management in local, state, tribal and federal government.
Retired Wilkes history professor James Rodechko was director of the cooperative education program while Milmoe was a student. He noted her passion for public service and recruited her to become a volunteer for VISTA, where she completed a long-term assignment in the Wilkes-Barre area helping flood victims recover from the disaster. According to Rodechko, she was “a dedicated student and a good leader who had a concern for people.”
As a student, she also found a role model in Jean Driscoll, chair of the political science department. “In the ’70s it was unique to have a woman chair of a political science department; she was living the career path I hoped to achieve. She challenged us to strive for excellence in public policy and public service,” Milmoe says.
After graduation, Milmoe worked for the Hazelton Nanticoke Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center and for United Cerebral Palsy in Wilkes-Barre. She received a full fellowship to earn her master’s degree in public administration at Marywood University and also served as a Presidential Management Intern.
In 1979, she launched her 37-year career in federal service when she joined the Veterans Administration. Other government positions have included work with the Department of Justice, Department of Energy and time as director of the greater Los Angeles Federal Executive Board for Southern California, Arizona and Nevada. In the last position, she was involved in operations supporting local responders in the 1986 earthquake in Whittier, Calif., and 1994 earthquake in Northridge, Calif., and for fires in Redondo Beach, Los Angeles and Santa Monica. She was a member of the presidential task force following the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Next came work as director of both Preparedness Training and Exercise Division and the Regional Response Coordination Center for FEMA’s Region II. Based in lower Manhattan, it encompasses New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. That assignment made her work in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the most challenging of her career.
“It was very difficult to muster myself to perform to the best of my abilities for the nation, while we were all dealing with the most catastrophic event of our time,” recalls Milmoe, who was part of a team in the nation’s capitol coordinating recovery activities. “While I was needed to provide reporting support to national coordination, my former colleagues in the FEMA Region II Office were affected and working at the site. My heart went out to them every day.”
Other challenging assignments were still ahead. Milmoe was planning chief at FEMA’s National Response Coordination Center during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, handling situation reports from the field during the massive national responses. She also served as the recovery center’s planning chief during FEMA’s support to the Department of State for relief to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.
Now a key player in FEMA’s education and training, Milmoe was deputy superintendent from 2007 until 2015 and served multiple appointments as acting superintendent the Emergency Management Institute, located at the National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg, Md. The institute provides training for more than two million students annually on site or online. The institute also partners with colleges and universities to support advanced degrees in the field. Milmoe has writtten some of the training curricula, supervised its development, served as instructor, and coordinator and presenter at international symposia.
“I can truly make an impact on people’s lives by supporting FEMA’s coordination of assistance to states for disaster survivors,” Milmoe says. “Every day I get satisfaction from helping to build competent and confident emergency managers to support our citizens through training and exercises.”
Vilma Schifano Milmoe, Gettysburg, Pa.
Bachelor of Arts, Political Science, Wilkes;
Master of Arts, Public Administration, Marywood University
Career: Senior Policy Advisor, Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Emergency Management Institute
Notable: 2015 Hall of Fame Inductee, International Network of Women in Emergency Management; 2003 DHS Secretary, Team Award; 1995 Vice Presidential Award for Northridge Earthquake; Four Federal Administrator’s Awards.
Favorite Wilkes Place: The Commons, a two-story Tudor building at the center of campus (now marked by the clock tower) which served as a meeting place for day-students to connect between classes and work obligations.
Favorite Memory: Meeting and dating her husband to-be, Robert Bruce Milmoe, ’75.