Serino ‘retires’ to top-level FEMA post

Richard Serino, shown at his Abington home, retired as chief of Boston Emergency Medical Services for a second career as deputy administrator of FEMA. Richard Serino, shown at his Abington home, retired as chief of Boston Emergency Medical Services for a second career as deputy administrator of FEMA.
(Barry Chin/Globe staff)
By Christie Coombs
Globe Correspondent / October 22, 2009

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ABINGTON - Nearly every day for 36 years Richard A. Serino put on a uniform and headed downtown from Dorchester, and later from Abington, to work for Boston Emergency Medical Services. For the last 14 years, a name tag identifying him as “Chief’’ was part of that uniform.

The son of Dorchester natives recently left the agency he has worked in since he was 19 to become deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington, D.C. He was sworn in to the FEMA post in a ceremony at Faneuil Hall Monday.

Still a little amazed at the course his career has taken, the 55-year-old said the federal job was not one he sought out. Feeling good about the prospects of retiring sometime soon, Serino said he received a message from the White House while on vacation and figured it was a call he should return promptly. When he did, he learned that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano wanted him to interview for the position.

Devoted to his family and home, Serino said he didn’t consider the idea until after he had consulted with Doreen, his wife of 31 years, and their three children.

Bryan, an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, and Peter, a history teacher at Abington High School, were on board from the beginning. But Jessica, a high school teacher in Hawaii, wasn’t so keen on the idea.

“She worried about her dad being lonely in D.C.,’’ said Doreen Serino, an emergency room nurse. “Our first thought was, no way would he take the position. It just seemed crazy. Retirement was right around the corner. But the more we thought about it as he went through the process, we decided as a family that he should do it. It was an honor to be asked, and in my opinion there’s no better person for the job. He had prepared his whole career for this, without even knowing it.’’

As second in command at FEMA behind Craig Fugate, former director of emergency management for Florida, Serino said he plans to use the philosophy he’s always worked with - treat people with respect and compassion - and help change the face of the organization that was severely bruised following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“First of all, people need to understand what FEMA is and isn’t,’’ he said in an interview. “It provides support to states and localities - it is not there to dictate how the local EMS and first responders operate. I plan to get out there and build relationships with the 10 regions by visiting at least one region a month. I hope to bring out the human side of FEMA so that the 3,700 employees are once again proud to wear the FEMA jacket and FEMA hat, and turn it around so FEMA is welcome when we go into cities to respond to a disaster.’’

Born in Dorchester, with a brother in Peabody and another on Cape Cod, Serino said the change is going to be bittersweet.

“I don’t know how to put the feelings into words,’’ he said. “I grew up at EMS. It’s been a good run, I’ve enjoyed it, and I’ve done a lot. It’s going to be different. I know Boston very well - the people, the streets, the politics, and I know how EMS works. I’ll be taking all I’ve learned in Boston to D.C. and will apply it on a national level.’’

He recalled numerous events during his tenure that are now part of Boston’s history - like the busing crisis in the ’70s, the Blizzard of ’78, the Charles Stuart case that strained race relations in the city two decades ago, the Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004, the Democratic National Convention the same year, and Sept. 11, 2001.

Through everything, in spite of being stabbed and shot at while on duty, Serino said he never once wondered whether he was in the wrong field, and he hopes people in Boston will remember him as “a good guy who had a positive effect on people’s lives.’’

Also leaving his post as the city’s assistant director of health, Serino not only knows how Boston EMS works, he’s also had a hand in making it what it is today. When he started in 1973, the agency had 24 employees and two ambulances. Now he leaves 420 employees, who respond to more than 100,000 calls a year with a fleet of 45 ambulances, and the agency is considered one of the best.

“I’m amazed at how much we’ve grown,’’ Serino said. “USA Today and the Centers for Disease Control listed Boston’s EMS as a model system, and other journals refer to it as one of the best, if not the best.’’

Serino was named the 2007 National EMS Chief of the Year by the National Association of EMTs, but he credits his staff for the agency’s success.

“We’ve got highly qualified and dedicated folks working for us. We’re better off now than we were years ago, but we’re still overworked - our paramedics and EMTs go nonstop,’’ he said. “There’s still a lot more to be done.’’

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said Serino, who went to St. Gregory Elementary School and then Catholic Memorial High School, will be missed.

“From his nights in the ambulance to his days behind a desk, Richie always thought about improving the safety and training of EMS responders, and now Boston’s EMS is known for its first-rate services provided by the agency’s EMTs and paramedics,’’ said Menino.

“While we are sad that Chief Serino is leaving Boston, we feel a great sense of pride that President Obama chose him to take the number-two post at FEMA. Richie Serino is bringing a little Dorchester to Washington, and our nation’s capital will be far better for it.’’

While his office will now be in Washington, Serino, a two-time cancer survivor, will still live in the town he has called home for 32 years. He said he has no interest in moving from Abington, so he plans to commute, flying home on weekends.

Doreen Serino has worked at Boston Medical Center for 33 years and admits she’s not a fan of change.

“This is enough change for us right now - moving doesn’t have to be part of it,’’ she said.