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State emergency management director to leave after nine years

Governor Charlie Baker (left) and MEMA director Kurt Schwartz surved damaged caused by tornado in Concord.
Governor Charlie Baker (left) and MEMA director Kurt Schwartz surved damaged caused by tornado in Concord. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File 2016)

Kurt Schwartz, the longest-serving state emergency management director in the agency’s history, is leaving his post March 1, ending a nearly nine-year tenure in which he helped guide the state’s response to a terrorist bombing, a deadly gas explosion, and record-breaking blizzards.

Schwartz, 62, will remain with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency through next week, when his successor, Samantha Phillips, is expected to start as the agency’s new director. Phillips is the former director of emergency management for the city of Philadelphia and, until October, headed the National Center for Security & Preparedness at the State University of New York at Albany.

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Governor Charlie Baker’s administration announced her hiring, and Schwartz’s departure from his $150,000-a-year post, on Wednesday afternoon.

Schwartz said the change sprung from a “discussion between myself and the administration,” and that he was not involved in identifying or selecting his replacement. He said he doesn’t plan to officially retire and left open the possibility of one day returning to state government.

He also indicated that the change developed quickly, saying that for him, it was a “quick decision over the last week or so.”

“There’s a new leadership team at the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security,” Schwartz said, referencing Baker’s new public safety secretary, Tom Turco, who took over in early December. “I’m the longest serving director of MEMA in its history. It seems to be the right time.”

Felix Browne, an EOPSS spokesman, declined to address why the administration changed directors, instead pointing to the press release announcing Phillips’s hiring. He also could not say what Phillips’s salary would be. When she resigned from her post in Philadelphia in March 2017, the Philadelphia Daily News reported that, at 34, she would be the youngest director in the history of the National Center for Security & Preparedness.

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She spent about a decade working for Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management, including six as its director, overseeing preparations for a visit from Pope Francis in September 2015 and the Democratic National Convention in 2016. She also responded to the 2015 Amtrak trail derailment in the city that killed eight people and injured nearly 200 others.

She worked at the National Center for Security & Preparedness for about 18 months, before leaving in October and working as an emergency management consultant.

Jayson L. Kratoville, the center’s interim director and the associate director under Phillips, said the center is primarily focused on training first responders in how to respond to potential threats.

“Her philosophy was if you prepare and get down on paper the things you can predict, it frees you up to focus on innovating and the unexpected,” Kratoville said. “I’m happy to see that she’s going to an emergency management agency. That’s really where her passion is.”

Baker said in a statement Wednesday that Phillips’s “extensive skills and experience in the public and private sectors, as well as academia, will help her lead this critical state agency.”

MEMA is responsible for ensuring the state is prepared to withstand, respond to, and recover from all types of emergencies and disasters, according to its website.

Schwartz’s 32-year public tenure includes time in the Middlesex County district attorney’s office and the state attorney general’s office before he joined the Patrick administration as an undersecretary of law enforcement in January 2007.

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He took over as MEMA’s director in June 2010, and held the position through Governor Deval Patrick’s second term and the entirety of Baker’s first term. During his tenure, he helped guide the response to the September gas explosions that rocked the Merrimack Valley, the 2011 tornados that ripped through Western Massachusetts, and nearly a decade’s worth of winter storms, including the record-breaking winter of 2015.

He also was serving as Patrick’s undersecretary for homeland security when, in April 2013, a pair of bombs detonated at the finish line at the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring hundreds of others. It sparked a dayslong manhunt that culminated in a firefight in Watertown and eventually the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the death of his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Schwartz said of all the events and disasters he’s responded to, “that whole event was probably the most emotionally difficult for me.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.