Josh Garcia, Emergency Management Coordinator of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, shares his experiences in building resilience within tribal communities. From the challenges of responding to a 500-year flood to navigating the complexities of tribal governance and stakeholder collaboration, Garcia’s story reflects valuable lessons learned from crises that have shaped Garcia’s approach.


Craig Weaver: Welcome to Response Leadership, a podcast brought to you by the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service, a leader in response training. We are a podcast bringing you leadership expertise from the top minds in emergency response. I’m your host, Craig Weaver. I work in communications at TEEX, and today, our guest is Josh Garcia. He’s the emergency management coordinator at Ysleta del Sol Pueblo in El Paso, Texas. All right, Josh, thank you for joining us. It’s good to have you. Thank you for your time today. Let’s get started. You and I spoke a few times before today, but you have an exciting journey of getting to where you are. But first, please tell us what you do as an emergency management coordinator there.

Josh Garcia: I had the pleasure of building this emergency management program from the ground up. But essentially, I focus on the four phases of emergency management preparedness, response mitigation and recovery. And so, we try and stay active in all four areas. Initially, we mainly focused on preparedness and response when the program started. I would say that two-thirds of the way in, we have now begun to really focus more on recovery and mitigation. And so, especially mitigation now, with the federal government emphasizing mitigation and trying to eliminate threats and hazards that will keep you from committing resources, financially, and in other ways to respond. So, the idea is to minimize that by mitigating those threats and hazards, so we’ve focused on that now.

Craig Weaver: Often, I’ll ask people in this podcast about their aspirations of leadership and that. And I’m not saying you did not have those aspirations, but you had a different journey getting to where you are than most people who think from a young age they want to be in a leadership emergency; you do not have that.

Josh Garcia: That’s correct. So, I’m a registered dental hygienist by profession. I have been practicing dental hygiene for 22 years. The last 13 of those 22 years. I was fortunate to come to Pueblo and take on a dental hygiene position at our health center and dental clinic. But then, I was part of a committee that explored creating a tribal emergency management plan. And it was through TEEX that we received a weeklong technical assistance session workshop. And so that got my foot into emergency management, and when we completed an essential phase of our emergency management plan, our leadership needed someone to implement and maintain it.

And so, I was tapped on the shoulder to do that. So, I did for almost three years, in part-time management and was doing dental hygiene. And then, eventually, I segway into this job full-time. But that was kind of the way I transitioned from that profession to what I do now. And they’re not related at all. Just the chance I had to be part of that committee was what put my foot in there.

Craig Weaver: Did that intimidate you at all? Coming into a situation like this?

Josh Garcia: Honestly, I did not have a good idea of what emergency management was. I only knew that it was something different. It took me to a different setting. As a hygienist, you work on one with a patient as an operator. Your primary focus is educating the patient on oral hygiene, staying healthy, etc. Going from that to looking at an emergency management plan and how that would be implemented here at the Pueblo.

Starting to work with different disciplines and more in a group setting. Eventually, we adopted the team concept where, you know, a lot of the planning was done a team. So going that setting, working one on one with an individual to working with a group, that was kind of appealing to me was different. And so, because I was doing that, I took an interest in having a good understanding in emergency one-on-one management. It didn’t happen overnight. Of course, but a lot of training, meetings, and talking to emergency managers who were already doing it helped me to get a good grasp of emergency management. Eventually, I embraced that so much that I threw myself at it and didn’t look back, look forward and try to build as much capacity and capability here to put in that area.

Craig Weaver: You would obviously have to really hit the ground running as far as learning curve and getting up to speed on how to do something that was completely different from your previous career. Your situation is almost like a city within a city, as far as governing and police are concerned. Talk a little bit about the distinction of that, of how life looks there.

Josh Garcia: Yeah, well, we’re kind of in an unusual setting in that we have two communities, our tribal communities. There are two communities that are separated by about six and a half miles. One sits inside the city within the city limits of El Paso. The other one sits outside of the city limits, but within the county of El Paso. So, you kind of have a little taste of both, an urban setting in one community and then a rural setting in the other. And then on top of that, we’re a border tribe in that we’re right next to an international border. Actually, one of our two communities abuts the Rio Grande. So, we’re right on the border there. The other one is about a quarter mile away from the Rio Grande. That’s the one that’s more in the city limits of El Paso.

So, lots of different ways to look at what we do based on our settings. And so obviously, we are players in this area with the city of El Paso. And the big agencies, law enforcement, firefighting agencies that we are really partners with. But we have had the need to educate our partners on where we come from. Many times, initially, our regional stakeholders would look at us as an organization or more as a casino. I, a while to kind of educate them to the fact that we’re a sovereign nation. We govern ourselves. Self-determination is something really big.

It wasn’t established here at the Pueblo when I started the emergency management program. But during that time of building, eventually, the Pueblo moved toward becoming more of a self-sufficient tribe. Of course, with the help of the federal government, the funding and how the funding was administered, many federal programs initially by the federal government assist the tribes in establishing those programs.

But once they’re set, the federal government can give the tribe an option, to be able to administer their own funding the way they think fit. And so that was all part of the idea of self-determination. And so along with that, in emergency management, there’s a lot of opportunity to take advantage of that plan and respond and do all those phases of emergency management with that in mind. And so, it’s an careful balance of not going too far to the other extreme where you kind of isolate yourself and you say, “hey, you know, we’re just going to look out for ourselves and that’s it.” But on the other hand, we are careful to reach out to our stakeholders and make sure that they understand how we work.

And we also need to understand how they work and collaborate together and partner wherever there’s opportunities to do that. We definitely are very much interested in mutual aid and a lot of other different agreements that will allow us to leverage everything that this region has to offer in the area of response and having resources. And so, we definitely value that and know that there’s much to leverage here. But at the same time, as we build internally our capacity and capability, we are definitely putting that out on the table for our regional stakeholders to make them aware, “hey, this is what we have to offer to. And so, let’s work together to help each other out.”

Craig Weaver: You and I spoke a little bit about the concept of buy in, and I can imagine if like you said, self-preservation, looking out for your own community, but you can’t do that. You have stakeholders, you have bought in. Talk a little bit about that and if it has that been a difficulty and how have you overcome that?

Josh Garcia: Yeah, so it has been a little difficult. I’ll speak to buy in first internally here with our leadership, I think what that helped and honestly it really wasn’t strategic on my part. It just happened that way that I just got into the habit of being forward-thinking in informing our leadership as much as I could. Many times, our elected officials would wonder why. “Why are you giving us all this information? And it took a while for them to start connecting the dots and realizing that as we were building to capacity, they were being informed of this it began to make sense for them.

So, I feel very much internally here, like I’m just that person that’s bringing different disciplines together on one particular capability that we’re trying to build and saying, hey, let’s come together here, let’s look at this and let’s see how we can work together to build capability. So, when we do that, informing our leadership is helpful because then they can see that progress.

And so, buy in internally it was really important. I very quickly started to realize that it was very important for me. And so, one of the things that really worked well was just to make sure that we were keeping our leadership informed every step of the way. I mean, it’s not anything different than what’s done here internally. All departments and divisions are required to do semiannual reports, annual reports and different kinds of reporting at different periods throughout the year.

But I really just put importance on that. And every chance I was able to, I was keeping our leadership informed. And I think that now, looking back 17 years later, I can see how that has really helped. And so now I’m a strong believer in that, obviously. But then going outside of the Pueblo here regionally, we have the Rio Grande Council of Governments in Texas. The different regions are divided by councils of government. And so, we are active in that role and that’s usually how the state of Texas, any grant, any pass-through grants that they have, usually they work through the councils of government to provide that funding. And initially, when we started tapping into that funding, there was a little bit of pushback in our region because our stakeholders knew that we had funding opportunities that came directly from the federal government, but eventually, that got worked out and they were able to understand that we were also players in the region and we were very much a part of the region, a player that was going to be in the region.

So, I remember that that was one area in funding that initially there was some pushback from our stakeholders, but once they understood, then it worked itself out and now we’re very much, a part of this region in a lot of different areas. And it has taken a little bit of time, our director of public safety. He used to be our chief and he talks about stories before when they were trying to create a police force. It started out as a security group, but that group transitioned from being security personnel to actually becoming officers and being commissioned. We have a federal commission through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and then our stakeholders here in the region, our law enforcement stakeholders, kind of buying into that, that that took a little bit of time.

And there’s all kinds of crazy stories about, who has jurisdiction where and all that kind of stuff. So that’s another example of how eventually we kind of asserted our sovereignty and also with the understanding that, hey, it’s all about you, our stakeholders, understanding us and us understanding them more than just, hey, we’re sovereign and this is the way it’s going to be, that that approach just really gets you nowhere. But the other approach is just having an understanding that really works well and going about it with respect.

Craig Weaver: When you’re having to deal with so many entities. How important in your job is listening?

Josh Garcia: Oh my God. I learned that the hard way. You know, for me personally in emergency management, that’s one lesson that I really learned. And initially when I was working with firefighters and law enforcement officers, because I don’t have that responder background, there were many misunderstandings on both our parts that took a while to kind of realize that maybe just kind of going over there and just kind of getting a taste of what these officers go through daily.

When you don’t have that with you, that can be an obstacle. So, that’s an example here internally where you have to listen to the other side. If you want to accomplish something, you must slow down, listen and understand so you can reach a common goal. And it’s been a hard lesson for me to learn here internally. But I believe that I do practice that a lot better now than I did early on. And it’s the same way in the region as well, because, again, a lot of our stakeholders really do not realize that we are a government and that we do govern ourselves.

And that and that really from the state’s perspective. We are really not bound by state laws. We follow those laws in good faith because they’re good laws, they make sense. We follow them in good faith, but we’re really not bound to them. So that took a little bit of understanding for our regional stakeholders to know and realize that and work better with us.

Craig Weaver: How would you describe your leadership style? And I know you have a small staff, but as coordinator, you at times have to coordinate lots of people. How do you describe your style as a leader?

Josh Garcia: I guess my leadership style has changed. Initially, I’m not really sure that I really had any particular kind of leadership style. They got a good understanding of how I needed to communicate with my stakeholders internally here and externally, I think just there was a style that I learned called Servant Leadership. And it’s basically, just working with well with those around you and focusing on what their needs are and how you can better assist them. And that when you focus on that, they are willing to hear what your needs are and they are in a better position to come to you and say, what is it that you need from us? And okay, then let’s work together.

It almost kind of coincides with the previous question that you asked about listening, because it just really forces you to put yourself in their place first so that you can then try and bring up whatever it is that you want to accomplish. And that’s how I feel in emergency management, especially in preparedness. You know, if you’re going to follow some type of training program or an exercise program, you have to really get the buy in of folks and come together and say, what are some gaps? And then how will we work together to address those gaps through training and exercises?

So, to get a good group of folks, and we’re not just talking about boots on the ground, we’re talking about chiefs. We’re talking about managers; we’re talking about directors. These are folks that honestly, they’re above my pay grade. So, I’m having to work with these folks. And so, I had to understand very quickly that, hey, you know, I must really understand them, understand their schedule, understand their workload before I come and say, we’re going to do this training. So, I think the phrase, servant leadership, if you’re very conscious of those that you work with and you try and put yourself into their shoes and understand them better than their response in working collaboratively with you is a lot better.

Craig Weaver: Did you have any mentors? Do you have any now? Did you have any when you started people you could go to, look up to, or follow in the footsteps of?

Josh Garcia: So, I can tell you that here locally, when I first started, I really would look up to the emergency management coordinator for the city of El Paso. And that didn’t last very long because there the turnover is really crazy. I can tell you that, you know, I have been the only emcee here for the Pueblo, but during my tenure I can say that it has been more than the fingers I have in my hands that I’ve seen emcees come in and out of. There have been some emcees that have stuck around maybe two or three years and that I’ve been able to establish some good relationships with. And so, there’s about one or two emcees from City to El Paso that I have connected and have stayed in touch with because they retired and went to work with TDIEM, so I have worked with them in that sense.

But at the federal level at EMI, the Emergency Management Institute, there was one instructor that I did stay in touch with, and he was the fire chief for Maricopa County. And then eventually, he went and worked for Salt River Reservation in Arizona. And there’s been many times when I’ve had questions, or I’ve had issues and he’s been very open give me guidance. His name’s Dave Bond really has been a man that had a lot of wisdom in emergency management and emergency response as a fire chief. And so, I really look up to him. There are a couple other emcee’s now that are active, there areas tribal emcees that also are very good models of what I’d like to be as emcee.

Craig Weaver: You mentioned when I heard you speak here at A&M, about your first big emergency, how huge it was and how quickly it came, when you first started this job. What was it?

Josh Garcia: In July of 2006, our program was formalized through a resolution and my position was formalized and also what we call our Tribal Emergency Planning committee. This is a body that I am kind of accountable to. And the progress of emergency management and then all that is discussed there, all emergency management activities. But July of 2006 was when we formalized that, but the very next month, we had a 500-year flood here in El Paso County. And so, I was kind of thrusted to kind of lead our response.

And so, as an emergency management coordinator, of course, my role would have been more to support the response. But at that time, we were very new to all of this. And, you know, we had been doing it for three years, but still we had never been challenged by a disaster of that magnitude. Mainly what I was involved in was sheltering operations. So, we ran to a shelter for about three days. And then after that was my first involvement in recovery because there was a declaration of fairly declared disaster in El Paso County that we were a part of. And so, working FEMA at the joint field office and doing all kinds of project worksheets and the projects, you know, restore some of the damage that we had incurred and stuff, that was a great experience.

Again, I was just learning as we were going. Trying to involve as many folks as I felt would be good for whatever function we were trying to do with the recovery. But I really learned a lot from that. And because of that, I think we’re a little more organized in recovery. And we do have a public assistance officer, an individual assistance officer, and then a damage assessment team that we recently took training with and are continuing to work with them. And there’s talks about eventually doing some exercises to test those recovery plans and ensure we’re doing well there. It was quite an experience and I look back on it, there’s a lot of things to glean from that experience that I use even now at this point in my career.

Craig Weaver: What’s a piece of advice you might give to somebody coming into a situation like yours?

Josh Garcia: For one thing, it’s very easy to quickly become overwhelmed with emergency management, especially if you’re really taking it to heart and you really want to see things done. And it’s important to understand that as an emergency management coordinator, you are just part of a team. So, your success depends on others. Their success depends on you. So, if you are able to invest time in having your partners understand that, then you can do more by working together, if everybody has that understanding. But if you aren’t careful to put that out from the get-go, then you’re going to struggle and there’s going to be a lot of push and you can become frustrated as well.

So, I would say, just understand that initially invest time in communicating with those you are going to work with to have a good working relationship. And just move forward and be patient though, because sometimes things that you are trying to accomplish, there’s periods when they move fast and then there’s other periods when you just cannot see any progress and you just got to be patient. And so, I think what was really appealing to me about emergency management is that there were four phases that I could focus on. So, if I was working on one phase and there was no movement there, then maybe I would look at another phase and do that. Sometimes, that can be a little tricky though because you might start to get too many irons in the fire.

But that helped me to kind of feel like, okay, well, if I’m not progressing in this area, but I think I’m moving here in this area, that really helped me to stay motivated my job.

Craig Weaver: What would you say is the most rewarding thing about what you do?

Josh Garcia: I think in the end, it’s just seeing progress. I mean, at an advanced level of preparedness from the state’s perspective. You know, we have all the annexes that the state requires. And when you are an EMPG recipient, that’s a grant. Emergency management performance grant. We were for nine years straight. But now we do it, not because we’re required to have, we still do it because it’s good practice, to be updating our plans on a five-year cycle. So, processes that were put in place and seeing them work, I think that’s really rewarding and that’s just one example of our plan.

I mean, we have a hazard mitigation plan that is FEMA-approved as well, and this is the second time that we have a FEMA-approved plan. So, we are already cycling there as well. In five years, we are actually focusing on those hazard mitigation projects that we identified, so much so that even internally here, our chief of operations officer took some of those projects that were identified and worked with the budgets for the next year and already worked some of those projects in. “I had told her, there’s money that FEMA provides to fund these projects.” She said “No, these are important enough and we have money allocated for it. So, we’re just going to do it.”

I mean, talk about rewards. That was like, whoa, that’s coming from someone that really is not that much connected with what I do. But understanding that this plan is important. I mean, those are the things that are rewarding. I have stories about training and exercises that do the same thing. One other example I see is, here at the Pueblo our chief of police is concerned with our law enforcement officers understanding how to establish incident command in an active shooter. And because of that, we’re going through the whole series of exercises, starting with a discussion-based a discussion-based exercise that we had a few months ago, finishing with a functional exercise next year, just focusing on that, because that is something that our chief of police felt strongly about.

This is just something that typically happens when you see all around law enforcement embracing ideas. And it is all because we worked at establishing these processes and training and having an understanding, and now it is paying off because there’s some more progression in all those areas. My passion at this point, I’m kind of at the tail end of my career. I think in the next four or five years I’ll probably be retiring. But I still think that there can be a role that I can play even after retirement. Being involved in emergency management. And that’s in Indian Country, because in Indian Country there’s still many tribes who don’t understand emergency management and just promoting that in Indian Country.

I’m trying to become an adjunct instructor with EMI on the tribal curriculum for that purpose that I can still be involved in teaching. I like to teach. The Nims curriculum, I embrace that and promote that. And so, I think I want to keep doing that. I know there’s a significant need in Indian Country because we’re a tribal nation; I mean, this opportunity to be an emcee all happened because of the tribe that I work for. And so, I think it’s another way to pay back to, you know, to Native Americans and understanding emergency management.

Craig Weaver: Josh, thank you so much for your time. It is really interesting to talk to you and hear your perspective. I appreciate it.

Josh Garcia: Thank you for the opportunity.

Craig Weaver: Thanks for listening to Response Leadership brought to you by Texas A&M Engineering Service. New episodes will be released on the fourth Tuesday of each month. Follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts or visit

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