WTO and Y2K – The Story I Was Never Asked To Tell – Part 5 (Final): A Look Back

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

Events that go well often result in less to describe or recall.

WTO Recriminations: Despite, perhaps due, to the constraints we struggled against, the WTO riots enhanced Emergency Management’s standing across Seattle city government. My staff deserved praise and respect for their dedication, endurance and skillful performance, as did City agencies, including SPD personnel assigned to the EOC for eight stressful days and nights.

Most Seattle police officers on the street, though let down by many of their senior leaders, assaulted by protesters, and criticized in the media, performed with courage, endurance and restraint under extremely difficult conditions.

Washington State’s Emergency Management Division, which years later I would be privileged to lead was flexible and reliable in their support role. Neighboring jurisdictions were quick to help us despite the short notice and the manpower and cost pressures unnecessarily thrust on their local government.

Although normally Seattle OEM managed and produced disaster after action critiques, the WTO review was outsourced. The City Council hired its own consultant; local newspapers predictably produced investigative reports. SPD’s report was confined to inputs from sworn participants. We had expected to be interviewed in at least some of these inquiries, but we never were. When I asked an Assistant Chief (the very same one who had initially released mutual aid in the middle of the riots) why neither my staff nor I were scheduled to be interviewed for any of the formal investigative reports, he said, “because you might tell them what actually happened”- he got that right, at least.

The “groupthink” environment in which the City chose to operate is the “villain” of this piece. While the specific circumstances from 1999 may not confront the emergency managers of the present or the future, the consequences of a political environment’s reckless “can do” attitude suppressing the telling of “truth to power” should be recognizable, and relevant.

AFTERMATH OF Y2K: In comparison, the Y2K preparations were a model of careful, methodical planning. Emergency Management’s coordination role was unchallenged. The City’s Comprehensive Plan was followed and adapted to the developing situation. Guidance from the subject matter experts from the City’s technology office was followed. Debunking apocalyptic theories, we conveyed to the public and the media that “we will handle whatever happens and fix whatever breaks…”

And, we did just that.


These two events, within weeks of each other, resulted in different outcomes. The City’s disaster plan was suppressed for WTO, resulting in abject failure. That same plan, scrupulously followed for Y2K, and adapted, as information and circumstances warranted, was an unqualified success. Plans do work if we allow them to.


In the emergency management profession, we focus on doing better, next time, and we are typically committed to an unvarnished review of our own performance. Even though the Y2K “event” went well, that did not allay my recurring doubts about my role leading up to WTO. My City’s reputation had been damaged. Afterward, I wondered “What more could I have done?” I also asked myself, “Should I have been even more outspoken, taken a more public stand, or even quit?”

The EOC Commander counseled me that I had neither lied nor deceived anyone in presenting my professional perspective with SPD and the Mayor’s Office. By working behind the scenes, my staff and I had prepared the city in spite of itself.

Had I quit, or gotten myself fired, it is doubtful that there would have been any alternative path for the City to take. As conditions deteriorated, the crisis may have endured longer and been far worse than it was. Hearing that from a respected colleague helped.

In my “To Stay or Go” post in June, 2018, I discussed the dilemma government officials face when leaders above them are making poor decisions that can lead to negative consequences. The WTO/Y2K period was a time, for me at least, to stay.

Now for Something Completely Different: The Story I was Never Asked to Tell
Blog Series

In 2015, The Center of Excellence – Homeland Security Emergency Management celebrated its ten-year anniversary with an Educators & Practitioners Summit at Pierce College Puyallup. One of our keynote speakers was former WA EMD Director Jim Mullen. Jim is a wonderful speaker who has the ability to connect with the audience through his storytelling. It was not long after the Summit where the Center’s Program Manager, Kellie Hale, asked Jim to provide his insights, knowledge, and experience into a monthly blog titled ‘Emergency Management Once Removed’. For the past four years, Jim has maintained a monthly blog for the Center from topics such as climate change, the aftermath of 9/11, the larger concept of emergency management and much more.

Jim has offered to do something a little different and tell about his experience when he was the Director for Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management during the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) 1999 Ministerial Conference in Seattle and the frenetic preparations for the transition from 1999 to 2000 (aka Y2K). The new blog series is titled ‘Now for Something Completely Different: The Story I was Never Asked to Tell’ and will be a seven-part series. Each part will be posted every Thursday via the Center’s Constant Contact mailing list, its Website at www.coehsemcom, and other social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

As the anniversary of WTO and Y2K get closer, Jim’s blog series will be recorded for a podcast. The podcast will provide a little more detail on Jim’s firsthand knowledge as Director for Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management, best practices learned, and takeaways from the experiences. Recording of podcast will be available in November (date TBA). We will keep everyone posted of when Jim’s podcast will be available to access.

August 15: Now for Something Completely Different: The Story I Was Never Asked to Tell
August 22: Background Information on WTO and Y2K
August 29: Part 1: WTO Planning
September 5: Part 2: Pre WTO/Y2K Environment
September 12: Part 3: WTO “Planning” vs “Seminars in Crisis and Consequence Management”
September 19: Part 4: Havoc in the Streets
September 26: Part 5: A Look Back

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Information on this Blog is provided with the understanding that the authors and publishers are not engaged in rendering professional advice or services. As such, it should not be used as a substitute for consultation with an professional adviser. Opinions expressed here represent the viewpoints of individuals authoring the blog and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Center of Excellence.