Occupation: Emergency Management Director/Fire Chief, Houston County
Q: How did Houston County fair in recent storms?
A: The actual tornado gave us quite a punch on Jan. 21, but we fared OK on the second and third rounds on the 22nd. Only round one really hit us.
Q: How do you grade the county’s response that weekend?
A: All our public safety agencies responded in a superior manner. Everyone worked their emergency operation plans well and agencies cooperated and were there to lend each other a hand. Everybody was on the same page with the main consideration being life and property. Thankfully, there were no injuries, no fatalities.
Q: What was hardest hit?
A: Primarily the Booth Road area with Wal- Mart and some houses around there sustaining the majority of damage. But there was damage along the storm’s path from Perry. The National Weather Service verified a 14-mile path, 250-yard wide, EF2 tornado. Fortunately, it wasn’t on the ground the whole time. Of course, there were 12 or 14 tornadoes south of us. We were also fortunate it was in and out quickly and we had beautiful blue skies that allowed a quicker recovery.
Q: What dollar damage are you hearing?
A: The latest I’ve heard to private dwellings and commercial structures is right at $7.2 million — $4.8 million is commercial and the bulk of that to Wal-Mart.
Q: How many “responded” to emergencies that weekend? Professionals, trained volunteers and others?
A: It was definitely an all-hands-on-deck weekend. Countywide we had probably 150 public safety professionals and volunteers. Then, I don’t know, anywhere from 75 to 100 SUVs in neighborhoods.
A: That stands for spontaneous untrained volunteers. That’s like taking and organizing a group of 25 who show up to help. They’re no longer just a neighbor helping a neighbor but are part of an organized effort. Like when that boy went missing on Russell Parkway a while back we had 700 people turn up to help search. Then there are the neighbors who just come out of their homes to give a hand to neighbors. All in all, we’re fortunate to live in a community where neighbors are eager to assist each other. Not everywhere is like that.
Q: That must be a relief to you as emergency management director?
A: That and the fact public officials and citizens fund facilities, operations and things like our three-pronged, countywide warning system.
Q: What’s that system?
A: There’s the countywide outdoor siren warning system — and the name tells what it is: an outdoor warning. Please don’t complain you can’t hear it inside, that’s not what it’s for. Then there’s the Code Red telephone system to get alerts by cell or landline phone. Third, there are $15 weather radio vouchers for Midland WR-100 weather radios from Houston County Krogers.
Q: What’s your biggest challenge as HEMA director and chief of the volunteer department?
A: There are always challenges, but I guess one of the biggest is maintaining sufficient numbers of trained, state-certified volunteers on the fire department side. We have a dedicated group of volunteers who’ve done and continue to do a tremendous job — no question about that — but with the number of calls we receive going up plus training and other requirements increasing all the time, it’s difficult to build up the number of volunteers we’d like to have. Our volunteers are trained just like anyone drawing a full-time firefighter’s paycheck. It’s not a social club. There’s a job to be done and we take it seriously. A house on fire doesn’t care if you’re full-time or volunteer, it’s just as deadly and everyone must be trained to the highest standard for effectiveness and everyone’s safety.
Q: How many calls to you get? How many volunteers do you have?
A: We answered 3,650 calls last year, emergency medical and fire calls. We have a career base of 11 at the department and a volunteer base of 65.
Q: What does someone have to do to volunteer? What’s involved once you’re in?
A: It boils down to training and responding to emergencies, they go hand-in-hand. There’s no use training without using the training and no way you can do this without training. A volunteer’s first year is all about training. It’s like a college class that meets a few times a week. This year’s starts March 28. The application deadline is March 3. After the training year there’s the two-year service commitment. The thing is, we’re getting a person state firefighter certification at no cost. That’s worth $8,000 to $9,000. If someone doesn’t fulfill the two years they owe us a pro-rated amount back.
Q: Some other requirements?
A: You have to have a physical along with the application. Once in, we require ongoing training hours and a physical agility test every year. We require an annual live-burn proficiency test where you go in and extinguish a controlled fire. It’s a safe environment but you have to show proficiencies resulting in a well-documented, 28-page report.
Q: And as you said, it’s a commitment, not a social club.
A: And it’s dangerous. Some get started and realize it’s not for them. They realize, “Hey, I could get killed.” And yes, it’s a serious commitment to add on to regular family and work life. We lose about 50 percent of that first-year class.
Q: Do a lot of people become volunteers in hopes of becoming a full-time, career firefighter?
A: About 25 to 30 percent go on to careers. I’d say 99 percent of our department’s full-time people started as volunteers. That’s only right. Then, too, with the certification you’re qualified to go anywhere in Georgia, but of course there are no guarantees. And as a volunteer you can become eligible for the state pension program, and it’s a good one.
Q: Who’s your longest serving volunteer?
A: On our support branch it would be Irene Self. In suppression, the direct firefighting branch, it’s Dwayne Gaston.
Q: How many stations are there?
A: Currently seven. The eighth is nearing completion near Perdue Farms in Kathleen and, if voters so desire and pass the coming SPLOST, there’ll be an additional station and equipment.
Q: Back to volunteers, are you saying finding them used to be easier?
A: I’ll put it like this, I started here in 1982 as a volunteer then moved up to where I am. When I started, I came in on a Thursday night and was issued equipment, a key to the fire station and instructions what to do if my pager went off. They said the first one in drove the firetruck. My first call I was the first in and drove the truck and we went and put out a fire. I was fortunate to be hired as chief and EMA director in 1989 and knew things had to change. We began moving fire services to where we are now. Now, we require 200-plus hours training in that first-year recruit school, state certification plus we have additional, specialized training. We require training and retraining because you want knowledge and good — I guess you’d say good muscle memory — when a firefighter is on the scene and life and property are in danger. But, in the early days, we’d easily have upwards of 150 volunteers.
Q: You see the difference now is requirements? Commitment?
A: And modern socio-economics. Requirements are more stringent but there are also more families with both adults working. There are more little league games to go to. Dwindling volunteers are a big concern nationally.
A: Yes. Volunteer fire departments are still the largest fire service providers and outnumber full-time staffed departments three or four to one. Chiefs talk about how they used to get 30 people on a scene but now get 12. We’re lucky to have such good citizen support here from voters and volunteers, but even we see the decline.
Q: Practically how can someone apply or get more information?
A: Volunteer firefighter applications are available from all county fire stations. Voucher information and other information is available by contacting us at 478- 542-2026 or going to the website (www.online.houstoncountyga.org/government/HEMA).
Answers may have been edited for length and clarity. Compiled by Michael W. Pannell. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.