Lakeland grad is national leader in his profession
Jesse Spearo ’03, a 20-year public safety veteran, traces his career-long involvement in emergency management back to a pivotal moment during his time at then-Lakeland College.
He was leaving a class on the second floor of Old Main, and classmates were glued to the televisions in the building watching what appeared to be a lot of commotion. It was late in the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the four terrorist attacks in the United States.
“I asked what was going on and no one responded,” Spearo said. “It was a watershed moment for me when I decided to be part of the solution.”
A criminal justice major, Spearo transitioned to a public safety focus and has never looked back. He enjoys an impressive career as one of the nation's leading practitioners, teachers and speakers in emergency management.
Currently the assistant director at Miami-Dade County Department of Emergency Management, Spearo oversees the newly created Prevention and Protection Directorate. He is responsible for community preparedness, mitigation, recovery and resiliency efforts for one of the most populous and vulnerable areas in the U.S.
It’s the latest stop in a career that’s seen him serve in the private sector and at all levels of government including federal, tribal, state, county and municipal. He has responded in a command or general staff role to nearly a dozen Presidential Disaster Declarations.
The roots trace back to Lakeland, where he served a pair of formative internships, one working in public safety policy in the office of Wisconsin’s State Senate President Pro Tempore, the other as a deputy marshal intern in the U.S. Marshals Service-Eastern District of Wisconsin.
“Following my internship with the marshals service, it was post-9/11 when emergency management became a big topic in federal law enforcement,” Spearo said. “It’s when I heard the term for the first time.”
Motivated to learn more about this emerging field, Spearo discovered three master’s degree programs and settled on Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., where he received a dual master’s degrees in emergency management planning administration and criminal justice administration.
He was also getting an education in the field working in emergency management and disaster recovery roles as Florida endured back-to-back devastating hurricane seasons in 2004-05 that included Hurricane Charley and Hurricane Katrina.
“That’s where I cut my teeth,” Spearo said. “I developed a good reputation for being a reliable agent in this space, knowledgeable, engaging, and my Midwest roots of work ethic and being personable came in handy and set me up to be highly successful. I’ve been able to grow into bigger organizations as more has been required of me that matches my skills and abilities.”
As Spearo became involved in hiring and training, he found that prospective employees were graduating from college programs with unrealistic expectations of what they would be doing and what they would be paid.
He returned to school, earning a Ph.D. in public safety and emergency management from Capella University, and today he teaches about a dozen courses a year for three Florida schools: Nova Southeastern University, Florida International University and Saint Leo University.
It’s all about being part of the solution.
“I said to myself, ‘I need to become better at this to help new generations,’” Spearo said. “Teaching has allowed me a tremendous opportunity to have influence within the space. Emergency management is a diverse profession, and I’m still relatively new to the profession, but one of the few practitioners that practices full time and has a terminal degree.”
Spearo has been deployed to disaster-stricken areas and slept on the ground while working alongside officials at all levels. That experience as a practitioner, paired with his academic work, has led him to author or co-author of more than 50 emergency management plans and publications. He regularly presents at national and international conferences and is very active on LinkedIn.
“I’ve been impacted by disasters as well, had damage to my home, lost power for four weeks at a time, was not able to get gas and had little access to food and water,” said Spearo, who is among the keynote speakers this March at the Natural Disasters Expo in Miami, Fla., and recently was part of a roundtable discussion on hurricane recovery at Duke University and community resiliency at the University of Miami.
“I can empathize with survivors. The lived experience has allowed me to serve as one of the experts in this space.”
A native of Sister Bay, Wis., Spearo was ready to join the Air Force out of high school, but he enrolled at Lakeland as a cross country recruit despite being unsure he even wanted to attend college. Thanks to the persistence of family and friends along with some Lakeland faculty and staff members, he stayed and logged a busy tenure that was a precursor to his hectic schedule today.
He played tennis in addition to running cross country, was cast in major roles in six Lakeland theatre productions, was a member of the Zeta Chi fraternity and the Inter-Greek Council, served on Student Association, the LC-Campus Activities Board, Lakeland Improv, Criminal Justice Club and was a regular member of the Dean’s List and a speaker at graduation.
Along with those experiences, Spearo said he was shaped by his peers who came to Lakeland from all over the world.
“What stood out for me was how incredibly friendly and inclusive everyone was,” he said. “From faculty to staff to students, everybody was like a family. Everyone was from different backgrounds, states and countries, and everyone got along.
“I enjoyed the diversity and meeting people from Malawi, Turkey, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Canada. I didn’t know much about their culture, but they became good friends of mine. Every holiday I brought back friends to Door County so they could experience an American custom.”
That cultural knowledge he gained at Lakeland is helping Spearo today in Miami-Dade County as he serves a key role in what he calls “the crossroads of America.” It’s a region that faces a myriad of challenges that put a premium on emergency management, including climate change, the increased frequency and intensity of hazardous events and limited housing.
“A number of push factors – climate change, conflict, disease, poverty – have occurred all over the globe that’s led to a massive migration of populations,” Spearo said. “We work with communities, schools, neighborhood associations and others to teach resiliency and preparedness on the front lines. We educate them about emergency management techniques so we can be ready for what we’re going to face.
“We live in a place a lot of people want to be. We’re about helping people be safe.”