The Union Recorder

April 28, 2013

Local agencies trained well for disaster

Kyle Collins
The Union-Recorder


Emergency preparation defines local responder roles in the case of a catastrophic event or natural disaster. Considering national devastation levied by recent storms or violent acts, planning and protocol are agency buzzwords at the moment.

Through the Milledgeville-Baldwin County Emergency Management Agency (EMA), law enforcement, fire rescue and medical personnel routinely train for a wide variety of events.

Baldwin County Sheriff Bill Massee said, as a rural community, group coordination is key.

“We are smart enough to realize we are small in numbers, and we are going to be the first responders. Historically, we've always had very good response,” the sheriff said.

A proactive approach contributes to the overall mindset that Milledgeville and Baldwin County are emergency ready.

Emergency response team

EMA is a county government mandate. Tabletop and live test scenarios keep responders prepared.

“The agencies work closely together,” Massee said. “We meet and go over different scenarios, where we will have a professional response.”

New area EMA director and county fire rescue chief Troy Reynolds said first responder preparedness develops the most efficient plans for the city and county.

If disaster time comes, all agencies must act as one, and Reynolds believes they will. These include city and county fire, police, BCSO, Georgia College Public Safety, Georgia State Patrol, Oconee Regional Medical Center and Georgia Bureau of Investigation to name a few.

“We have the people in place to deal with it. It's hard to predict what all will be involved. It's a matter of being prepared and trained for it when it does happen,” Reynolds said.

Local EMA has accountability systems in place for safe handling during chaos operations. The EMA director reviews and updates the protocol yearly.

Reynolds said the plan covers the who's who gathering if and when the Emergency Operation Center (EOC) activates. This unified command post directs operations deploying resources where needed.

Officials won't confirm, but locations like the county's high-tech E911 center or the courthouse basement are possible hubs.

“They don't like to tell the meeting place. That may be an afterthought. It changes according to where the event is,” Milledgeville Police Chief Dray Swicord said.

County Manager Ralph McMullen said agency heads are familiar with who needs to be at the table during a crisis.

“As management, we are only called on because our department heads can't authorize certain expenditures, and I can. Therefore, there are times I would be called in,” McMullen said.

Swicord said knowing one’s job makes limiting the chaos much easier on the law enforcement end. 

“Everyone has to be on the same page. Politics has no play in that whatsoever,” Swicord said.

Georgia College Associate Director of Emergency Preparedness Justin Gaines said the university relies on county and city assistance during any event within the campus. Student and citizens’ safety reigns above all else.

“All and all, the first responders' goal is to save lives and protect people. By training together and being on the same page, we can know what the other is thinking,” Gaines said. “By us being a partner, what we are able to do is provide a better service to our citizens, which gives them a better quality of life.”

Practice makes perfect

Capt. Lynnette LaRocque of BCSO said a county All-Hazards Plan has been in place for 12 years. Other local agencies have similar plans as well.

LaRocque said everyone knows National Incident Management System or NIMS.

Tabletop and physical exercises with EMA partners included a response to an active shooter in school situation and a chemical spill at the end of last year.

“We will be doing another one this year,” LaRocque said. “We coordinate them with all the agencies.”

A mock December 2012 exercise put Georgia College and other local emergency responders through real life scenario training, testing how Oconee Regional Medical Center would handle a mass casualty event. 

The tornado response exercise provided practice on evacuating patients from the affected area, as well as bringing new ones for treatment.

Real life training increases networking opportunities for first responders and agency heads. These conversations prove invaluable during an actual event.

“We try to keep our firefighters and law enforcement officers trained. We have a pretty good public safety community. I feel really good about it,” Sheriff Massee said. “Our people aren't afraid to be initial responders. I've always been proud of them when something does happen in the community.”

LaRocque cited a Feb. 11 high school bomb threat as an instance where training and new technology came through. To prevent detonation in case of a real explosive device, officers switched radio frequencies off the primary channel but were still able to communicate effectively.

Ongoing updates and readiness set the city and county apart. LaRocque said emergency prep is extremely important considering the different types of mechanisms used for attacks.

“We need to know where our evacuation is based on the threat. I realize we live in a smaller community, and we aren't as big of a target,” LaRocque said. “If this could happen somewhere else, it can happen here.”

McMullen expressed confidence with local EMA's capabilities.

“I feel with Troy's and our fire department's training, Baldwin County is probably second to none when it comes to emergency preparedness and well-trained first responders,” the county manager said.

Technologically fueled response

If these events played out for real, Georgia College would use its various siren, text, phone and campus pop up emergency notification systems to direct human traffic to safety. The alerts effectively warned those nearby during the campus bomb threat early last November. 

Gaines called the technology “a one stop shop to get the message out.”

Georgia College invests a lot of money into infrastructure and planning like any city or municipality would. The university received a $40,000 grant to integrate a campus TV and computer pop up program warning students of emergencies.

Three stand-alone sirens costing $96,000 use old school communication alerting citizens and students about severe weather or other dangerous situations.

The siren system is easily expandable, according to Gaines. The city inquired about the sirens recently, and Reynolds likes the weather alert capabilities.

For those out of downtown audible range, National Weather Service is the option.

“The system is expandable. All that has to be done is buying the infrastructure,” Gaines said. “It wouldn't be hard at all. I'm a big advocate of it. Most tornadoes happen when we are asleep.”

The county's new E911 center opened Sept. 11 last year brandishing snazzy software and hardware. 

The facility includes an advanced Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system that records incident details and updates, prioritizes events and identifies the appropriate responder resource. In addition to the CAD boost, mapping software offers dynamic map display to pinpoint the location of a caller or an incident. GPS tracking lets county dispatchers send the closest available responder to the location. 

Georgia College, fire departments and the Milledgeville Police Department utilize the system, as well as surrounding counties within the Oconee Regional 911 network.

LaRocque said a good amount of money spent gave the center an uninterrupted power supply. Safety rods built into the structure dissipate the electricity in the event of a lightening strike.

If a disaster event hit the center itself, officers could reroute calls to another phone. Dispatchers could still direct manpower without the CAD and extended mapping capabilities.

“We can transfer calls to another phone as easy as turning a light switch. I saw that in action Sept. 11 when we moved in that building. We'd be back at the old enhanced where you can see the number and coordinate with that person. We could still dispatch,” LaRocque said.

Help before, during and after

Whether through funding or simple responder numbers, crisis areas require outside assistance.

Financially McMullen said the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) or its federal parent should step forward.

“Any time you have natural disasters you'd be hoping that the state and federal government would chip in and help us out,” McMullen said. “We are hopeful these things don't happen, but also that we can recover some expense from federal reserves.”

Reynolds said funding responses begin locally, bouncing to state and the national radar if Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency.

“We would reach out to all agencies for help,” the EMA director said.

Clearing roadways becomes a necessity for emergency response delivery. 

Swicord said it's difficult to prepare for that role until thrown into the fire and chaos.

“The main issue is traffic control to try and get people to and from each scene. You can never be prepared for something like that. You just hope that training kicks in,” the police chief said.

McMullen ranks Public Works in high regard. 

“We feel confident that our Public Works will respond very well,” McMullen said. “They will be out there all night long working with other first responders keeping our roads clear.”

Water is a necessity when the power drops. Providing generators for those sites fits within an EMA plan.

Reynolds said a soon to be established Community Emergency Response team recruited from the local community allows highly trained fire and law enforcement to handle high priority items.

“If a catastrophic event happens, that will allow us to use those resources to help us do property search and in storms where now we may tie up a truck or law enforcement,” he said.

Gaines pointed out an established emergency preparedness mission of bringing normalcy back to citizens. Finding the most effective solution comes out of the training.

“Every emergency is solved at some point and time. We strive to do that,” the GC officer said.

Preparing your home disaster kit serves as an important facet considering the severe weather season moves closer.

“You have to prepare yourself, and we’ll be there in the aftermath to help put things back together,” Reynolds said.

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