FORT DETRICK, Md. -- Jeff Finlay was just a third-grader in 1974 when one of the worst tornado outbreaks in U.S. history brought death and destruction across 12 states, including his native Ohio.
There were over 100 tornadoes confirmed in less than 24 hours during the 1974 Super Outbreak, but none worse than the F-5 tornado that struck nearby Xenia, Ohio.
“It killed 35 people up there,” said Finlay, who was born and raised in Cincinnati, about an hour southwest of Xenia. “I remember watching the news and seeing all these responders -- firemen, policemen -- and fast forward to who I am now, I’ve been that guy.”
In the decades that followed, Finlay has accumulated over 35 years in various public safety roles over his career, including in fire service, law enforcement, emergency and incident management, as well as experience in EMS, hazardous material response, technical rescue, search and rescue, and teaching numerous public safety courses for various state and federal agencies.
“In Ohio, I cut my teeth on the natural disasters,” he said. “We had a bunch of F-4 tornadoes. We deployed to a lot of stuff throughout the state, but also big events in the region, like in Kentucky and Indiana.”
Finlay, who currently serves as chief of Security Operations and Emergency Management for U.S. Army Medical Logistics Command, credits the influence of his grandfather and uncles -- all serving in the Marine Corps, then later as police officers or firefighters -- who left him “hardwired” to serve.
“What I really wanted to do was follow in their footsteps and join the Marine Corps,” Finlay said, although his mother blocked that decision for the then-17-year-old as a result of the 1983 terrorist bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut.
“So instead of ducking bullets and bombs, I got into the fire service and ran into burning buildings.”
To say public service runs in Finlay’s blood would be an understatement.
In keeping with the family tradition, he opted to enter the fire service as a fourth generation firefighter despite attending the University of Cincinnati to earn a degree in pre-med.
Even though he always did well in school academically, becoming a doctor or pursuing a medical career, Finlay said, was more of his mother’s dream.
“That was hard for her to swallow,” Finlay recalled. “But I said, ‘look mom, grandpa, Uncle Bud and Uncle Bob, they’re not doctors. This is what we do.’”
Living in Cincinnati until the early 2000s, Finlay’s experience and certifications in the fire service, technical rescue and hazardous materials arenas earned him a spot on an elite federal-level response team known as Ohio Task Force 1, one of 28 federal urban search and rescue, or USAR, teams across the country.
The teams deploy as a Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, asset to support response and recovery efforts after large-scale disasters, including weather-related events, as well as non-emergency events, such as a U.S. visit by the Pope, the Olympics when held in the U.S. and large Homeland Security special events.
USAR teams specialize in various forms of search and rescue operations, including structural collapse, trench and confined space rescue, high angle rope rescue, swift water rescue, heavy machinery and more.
His team in Ohio deployed to New York City in 2001 after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Hurricane Katrina response in 2005, along with many other state, regional and federal level responses.
After relocating to Pennsylvania, he applied for a position on Pennsylvania Task Force 1, another FEMA USAR team. He was selected as a planning team manager, but is also qualified to deploy as a safety officer, rescue specialist and hazardous materials specialist.
“When you deploy, you need to have a team that makes a plan based on the needs of the incident,” Finlay said. “It matters when it comes to how you respond.”
In 2007, Finlay also earned a position on two state-level incident management teams, or IMTs, in Pennsylvania. IMTs deploy at the county, state and federal level to both incidents and events to help incident commanders and emergency operations centers get their arms around an incident or event.
“They excel at bringing order to chaotic situations,” Finlay said.
For these teams, he has completed training in 23 different positions within the incident command structure and has earned FEMA credentials as a planning section chief, logistics section chief and safety officer. He has deployed throughout the region to incidents and events to serve in these capacities, and is currently earning his credentials as an incident commander and communications leader.
Throughout his career, Finlay has been trained in dozens of disciplines throughout the fire, hazardous materials, technical rescue, incident management and other public safety areas, earning over 70 nationally-recognized credentials and certifications. His advanced-level certifications include: Fire Officer IV, Fire Instructor III, Fire Inspector III, Hazardous Materials Technician, Rescue Technician, Hazardous Materials Safety Officer, Technical Rescue Safety Officer, Incident Safety Officer and Paramedic.
‘Finlay version’ of teaching
Through his years of service, Finlay has amassed quite a bit of knowledge in his fields of expertise.
That has led to some opportunities to teach and share that information over the past 25 years across the country and abroad.
“It’s rewarding,” he said of teaching. “A lot of people do it for the money, but I’d do it for free if somebody needed me to. It’s a way to give something back.”
Over his career, Finlay has taught over 20 different national-level programs, some for major institutions like Michigan State Police, New York Police Department’s emergency services unit, Ohio Emergency Management Agency, Washington D.C. Department of Health and others.
From incident safety, hazardous materials, technical rescue, incident planning, logistics and finance, he’s done a little bit of everything. He instructs for the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy, Pennsylvania State Department of Health, FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute and National Fire Academy, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
It’s also led to several opportunities to teach overseas in countries like Japan, Korea and Turkey.
Teaching, Finlay said, has allowed him to tap into his decades of experience, offering students more than just the basic program. He adds his own flavor and incorporates real-life experiences to make it more fun and engaging for students.
Finlay said it’s become even more important considering the decline of volunteerism around the country, which is protected largely by volunteer fire companies.
“I call it the Finlay version -- teaching beyond what is written in a curriculum,” he said. “I think teaching from experience is more appealing to the student because if you can take what you’re teaching and you can tie it into a story, especially one that has that ‘wow’ factor, it’s more impactful.
“It’s not about what you know,” Finlay added. “It’s about how well you take that knowledge and pass it on to somebody else.”
Finlay first joined the federal service in 2009 as a civilian working as the chief of Safety, Security and Emergency Management for Defense Logistics Agency, the largest tenant organization at Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania.
While there, Finlay also served on the special operations team with Tobyhanna Fire and Emergency Services, which, thanks to an agreement between commanders, utilized his expertise as a hazmat technician, rescue specialist and safety officer.
In January 2020, Finlay relocated to Fort Detrick to serve in his current role for the Army’s premier medical logistics organization.
His safety and hazmat training was quickly put to work when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, resulting in a need for “clean teams” to help sanitize workspaces throughout the Defense Medical Logistics Center, or DMLC, building and protect the workforce.
Finlay leaned on his teaching background, developing and facilitating a course for participants from each branch’s logistics arms collocated within the DMLC to carry out cleaning procedures.
“A lot of stuff I’ve learned public safety related to protection translates well to my current role,” he said, also pointing to his physical security and antiterrorism training as crucial cogs to maintaining secure, safe operations.
For someone who has seemingly “done it all” in public safety, does it ever start to feel stale?
Finlay said no, and that’s because he’s always challenged and pushed himself to do more, learn more and share more.
“From a career standpoint, when I retire someday from the federal service, I know what I’ll be doing,” Finlay said. “I’m going to stay active and teach. It’s no different if someone works for you and you want to train your replacement to be better than you.
“That’s the kind of mindset I have."