Finding a Fierce Desire to Work

Sandee Niles

Sandee Niles is a Coast Guard veteran and Ph.D. candidate in Public Policy Administration: Emergency Management. She's deployed on 7 operations and currently volunteers in Region III. 

I’d been a Red Cross volunteer for 14 years when a coworker at the Transportation Security Administration told me about Team Rubicon. He said I might be interested in volunteering since I’ve been studying Emergency Management for a long time.

I already volunteer a lot, between the Red Cross and FEMA, but I did a bunch of research, watched all the YouTube videos with Jake Wood and all those guys. I figured if I was going to join another organization, I wanted to make sure I used my time wisely. As soon as I fully understood Team Rubicon’s mission, I knew I had to join.


In April 2017 I did all the online training, watched the calendar and to my surprise there was a social in Harper’s Ferry, West VIrginia. I went, met a bunch of cool people, and here I am on a disaster recovery operation a few months later.

I came up to Butler not knowing what to expect. I know what flood damage looks like but I didn’t know if we’d be sleeping in tents and eating MREs and I didn’t have any concept of the type of work we were going to do. It’s phenomenal—it blows my mind. I’ve responded to a lot of disaster at local, state and national level and it was incredible to be part of the team of doers.

I’ve volunteered for eight national level disasters, seven regional operations and responded to more fires than I can count– and the work I did this week here in Butler is more work than all of the previous disasters combined.

Do you know what blew me away the most? The team aspect of Team Rubicon. I showed up thinking I had a 50/50 chance of even fitting in. Op Sullivan’s Run is my first Operation and I was sure everyone else knew each other and I’d be the lone man out. It was a complete 180 of that.  I showed up, Jonah [Thompson, Incident Commander] barked at me to change into work clothes and then all of a sudden I was part of a strike team—part of a family—it’s like I’d known them a long time.

They made me a Strike Team Leader and I thought it was a prank because it was my birthday.  Turns out, it wasn’t. I was nervous but we headed out and worked as a team—I had a great team and it made leadership easy. Everyone who showed up had heart and a fierce desire to work—the hardest part of being the Strike Team Leader was keeping track of the gear.

I thought I was prepared for the emotional side of dealing with homeowners in the wake of a disaster but it was overwhelming—each of them had their own stories and dispositions. I met a retired high school coach, a daughter left alone to clean out her dead parents flooded basement, a coffee peddling grandmother and a salty, sweet, Vietnam veteran.  Each of them, in their own way, knocked me over with their appreciation.

I’ll definitely be back.  Team Rubicon is exactly what I didn’t know I was looking for.