By Anne Freedman
The old chestnut about "if you want something done, ask a busy person," probably should have Marilyn Rivers' picture attached to it.
Whether it's starting a new chapter of the Public Risk Management Association (PRIMA), creating educational programs for public risk managers, volunteering in a soup kitchen, or swinging a hammer in her latest DIY project, Rivers keeps herself busy, busy, busy.
And that's in her off hours, when she's not at work as director of risk and safety for the City of Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
"The word that keeps coming to my mind to describe Marilyn is focused," said Marshall Davies, executive director of PRIMA in Alexandria, Va. "She grabs hold of a task. She breaks it down. She understands what is necessary. She sets deadlines for herself and other people and she holds to those deadlines and sometimes, she makes people squirm."
Sometimes, she also makes them sing and dance. Two years ago, Rivers helped the Chamber of Commerce put together a video promotion for the city that had public officials and thousands of residents lip synching and dancing in a music video to a medley of songs by Train, a band whose drummer, Scott Underwood, is a native of the historic tourist destination in upstate New York, home to the fabled Saratoga Race Course.
"That's not to say my administrative police sergeant didn't grumble," Rivers chuckled, noting that her own dance kick routine in the video taught her that "it's not a good job for heels."
Being a public risk management executive is oh so different than being one in the private sector.
"We wear many hats because we serve the community 365/24/7 and we really do serve," said Rivers, whose easygoing, modest manner conceals her intensity. "We here in Saratoga Springs are proud to say we have history and horses and hospitality.
"In the private sector, you have the ability to say no," she said. "Here, in the public sector, we don't have the ability to say no because we are constantly trying to meet the ever-changing needs of our community."
If a new parade, festival or program is proposed, it's up to Rivers to make it work because it's often politically difficult to refuse.
"There are no problems in public risk management," she said. "There are opportunities for improvement and success."
Besides, Rivers said, no risk manager wants to be known as "Dr. No" when they walk through the door.
Collaborating on Safety
One of her biggest achievements, she said, has been the creation of a robust safety committee that meets monthly. The 19-member committee includes the chief of police, fire chief, appointed officials, labor union officials and other city representatives such as the city engineer and electrician, said Rivers, who chairs the committee.
When she travels across the country for presentations, she is often asked how she can keep such a committee viable, how she can convince such high-level officials to participate.
"It didn't happen overnight," she said. "It's about teamwork. It's about respect and it's about understanding. We really are a risk management family for the city."
Among the committee's recent efforts are making sure all city buildings have fire protection systems in place; setting policies and protocols for compliance with federal and state mandates from OSHA and the Department of Labor; focusing on safety programs for residents, such as active shooter incidents; and starting to rehab a circa 1929 fire house that may have the oldest set of bifold doors used by a fire company on a daily basis.
"You are constantly trying to manage the risk associated with all of the impacts on the community on a daily basis for everyday life," she said. "Then you need to be able to balance the influx of tourists while still maintaining quality of life for residents."
Saratoga Springs, which is about 29 square miles, much of which is on the National Historic Register, has about 35,000 residents -- a number that can be tripled during the summer months. The historic Saratoga Race Course, which opened in 1863 and is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, is the main draw, Rivers said, but the town has performing arts and other events year round.
And as with most other governments, Saratoga Springs is faced with both tight budgets and a growing need to fund pensions, medical costs and other public needs.
The city's funding and risk management programs are made more complex by its historic nature.
Before she came to Saratoga Springs 10 years ago, the city had no formal risk management programming.
The task, she said, is "How do you manage the risk of keeping it historically accurate but making it livable for all of our residents and our visitors?"
The frequent communication and cooperation on the safety committee allows for creative solutions to be devised, she said, such as various government functions bartering services.
For example, she said, the city electrician had a need for confined space training while the fire chief needed some electrical work done. They traded the work for the training and both sides emerged satisfied.
Mark Walls, a senior vice president at Marsh, who has been a co-presenter with Rivers at some conferences, including this month's conference of the Risk and Insurance Management Society (RIMS), said that he loves her passion about her work.
"Public entity risk management is so much more difficult than the private sector because you are dealing with extreme budget constraints and politics and so many things that the private sector doesn't have to face," he said.
"She just does a tremendous job with it. Her level of imagination and creativity and I can't emphasize enough, the passion. She enjoys what she does."
Also, he said, Rivers is always working to improve her risk-management programs, and never lets the confines of the public sector restrain her.
"She doesn't look at them as limitations," Walls said. "She just looks at them as obstacles you have got to get around."
Rivers has also been involved in the formation of a national risk policy as a member of the Standards and Practices Committee of RIMS and is very active in PRIMA.
She served on PRIMA's board of directors for four years and is a founding member of a chapter in upstate New York. The organization named her Public Risk Manager of the Year in 2007.
"I am blessed to work with her," said Jessica Konrath, manager, education and training, at PRIMA. "She is extremely motivated and dedicated to her job and to her community as a whole."
Rivers' most recent initiatives with the association have been revitalizing the PRIMA Institute -- which offers training and education to both new risk managers and those who want to upgrade their skills -- and chairing a task force to reorganize the 3,000 or so documents in PRIMA's online resource "Cybrary."
After the PRIMA Institute had been put on hiatus because of lack of involvement, Rivers completely revamped the conference, including identifying useful sessions and recruiting all of the speakers for the three-day program when it relaunched last year.
"She did a phenomenal job," Konrath said. "On a good year, we would have 30 to 40 attendees. Last year, we had over 100."
Konrath also worked with Rivers on overhauling the online resource library, which debuted in March -- "She did about two-thirds of that" and also had the time to create a series of podcasts on public risk management as well, Konrath said.
"She is extremely humble," she said. "Any opportunity she has to give herself credit, she gives it to me, and I always tell her to stop it. She's my brains."
It was a long-ago co-worker who called her out for not understanding the industry, during her first job at Traveler's Insurance, that compelled her to seek a CPCU certification. She subsequently received the ARM and AIC certifications.
With a bachelor's degree in chemistry and a master's degree in secondary education, getting into insurance and risk management was just one of those things that can happen when your graduation coincides with a bottoming out economy.
But Rivers found that she could leverage her analytical and math skills as well as her problem-solving abilities in the field.
Before taking on the risk and safety issues affecting Saratoga Springs, she worked as director of corporate risk management for the Franciscan Health Partnership Inc.; director of corporate operations for REALTECH Systems Corp.; and as risk manager at Mary McClellan Health System.
When she came to her current position, "no one here knew anything about risk management," Rivers said.
"It's been an uphill climb," she said, but it's been an opportunity to serve the community as psychologist, caregiver and big brother.
And when she's not traveling with her husband or perusing the aisles at Home Depot, one of her favorite places for her fixer-upper projects, she also likes to give back to the community in other ways, working with the Lion's Club or volunteering at soup kitchens.
"It's so rewarding," she said, noting that that's the way she feels about her profession as well.
"It's a way for community positive reinforcement and success and teambuilding," she said. "That's what is so great about public risk management."
ANNE FREEDMAN is senior editor of Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at email@example.com.
April 12, 2013
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