JACKSONVILLE — When the tornado touched down in Jacksonville last March, staff at the county Emergency Management Agency had to flee from their upstairs office to the Calhoun County 911 office downstairs.
Their headquarters, a 1930s-era building on Francis Street, isn’t built to take tornadic winds head-on. And yet that’s exactly what a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said was coming toward the EMA building that evening.
“We got a notification from NOAA that ‘It’s right on top of you’ about the time we got a tornado warning for the county, and we were getting ready to start monitoring but had to run downstairs, where the 911 operators were at,” said David Randle, an emergency management officer who was there that night. “They were getting flooded with calls. We knew even before we had official reports that it had been bad.”
The agency staffs itself based on certain triggering events that define how many volunteers and workers on loan from other agencies need to be in the building to manage any particular crisis. The scale for response is similar to the U.S. military’s DEFCON rankings: 5 is least severe, 1 is most severe. The Jacksonville tornado, said Michael Barton, the new agency director as of November, was considered a “level 1 activation.”
“That’s all hands on deck and then some,” Barton said.
As soon as the immediate danger to the building passed, Randle and Deputy Director Greg Militano went back upstairs with a crew of workers ready to manage the storm. They’d been summoned throughout the day as alerts became more serious, and were ready for work, Randle said.
“We put everybody in motion. Jacksonville fire and police were responding and the volunteers were making contact. We were trying to see into the future to know what may be needed,” he explained.
Anticipating needs a few hours in advance isn’t easy, but large-scale preparations require three things, according to Barton: relationships, resources and resiliency, which the agency will focus on this year.
Preparing through relationships
“There’s probably not a hazard that doesn’t affect us here in this part of the country,” Barton said.
Weather events like tornadoes, snowstorms or floods are always possible, but the agency also has to prepare for threats like active shooters and terrorism, “especially given the type facilities we have here in the county,” Barton said.
Before nationwide bomb threats in December were outed as a hoax, local authorities had to respond to them as if they were real. While officers in Anniston and Oxford investigated threatened locations, the EMA staffed its Emergency Operations Center and worked to get information out to the public to prevent panic. Spreading information to the public is one of the agency’s key tasks, and it’s a process common to all emergencies.
“If you look at one threat, a lot of the same things apply with any emergency,” Barton said. “A lot of the processes are the same.”
Agency staff will spend this year meeting with public and private groups to provide education about disaster preparedness and crisis planning, and build relationships that can be useful in a crisis.
“It’s not a build it and they will come kind of thing,” said Myles Chamblee, an agency emergency management officer. “We have to go where they are.”
Chamblee used the county Chamber of Commerce as an example of a valuable relationship, because it opens a window to communication with the businesses who work with the chamber that may not have ties to the EMA. Similarly, a tie to the United Way allows quick access to outreach groups that operate under that umbrella. Chamblee called those kinds of contacts “force multipliers” because they offer quick access to needed supplies, resources and information.
“A favorite saying in the EMA is that we don’t want to be trading business cards during an event,” he said.
Taking stock of resources
Barton said another focus this year is to address community needs by building up county resources, which he wants to accomplish through a focus on grants. County safety organizations already have an additional $60,000 from a Homeland Security grant awarded in late November, he said, and the County Commission applied for a grant this month that would build new storm shelters if approved. Locations on those shelters haven’t been chosen yet, Barton said previously.
“We can hear from the fire chief or police chief or a mayor who says ‘We have a need for this’ and spend some time researching that, see if there’s a grant for it, or maybe it’s something we can collectively buy,” Barton explained.
He also said there would be an emphasis on technology, and mentioned a service called Nixle, the agency’s early warning system that sends notifications through text message. The service is paid for by the county and is free to residents, assuming they’re not charged for receiving texts. Residents can sign up for the service now by texting CALHOUNEMA to 888777 or by completing a form at calhounema.org.
County equipment will be assessed throughout the year as well, to make sure it’s up to date and stored where it’s needed, Barton said in a press release last week.
He said that the agency’s third pillar, resiliency, will come from attention paid to relationships and resources.
“We know it’s not a matter of if an event will happen, but when it’s going to happen,” Barton said. “To not be surprised when it happens, but as a community, as public safety professionals, that we’re resilient in our response that we can get back up quickly when we’re knocked down and our breath is taken away by it, and we can press through to get the mission done.”