published Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

Homeland Security funds aided tornado response

In this file photo, emergency personnel search through the remnants of a home on Cherokee Valley Road in Ringgold, Ga., for survivors after the April 27 tornadoes.
In this file photo, emergency personnel search through the remnants of a home on Cherokee Valley Road in Ringgold, Ga., for survivors after the April 27 tornadoes.
Photo by Jake Daniels.

WHERE IT WENT

Tennessee

* Bledsoe County: $18,965, mass casualty decontamination system

* Bradley County: $21,434.66, bomb suit

* Hamilton: $168,980, mobile command vehicle

* Marion: $37,936.35, alert/notification system

* McMinn: $65,750, chemical/biological/radiological/nuclear response software

* Meigs: $25,000, chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosive prevention and response watercraft

* Polk: $44,733.63, radio repeaters

* Rhea: $3,805, swiftwater rescue device

* Sequatchie: $40,185.86, 11 portable radios

Georgia

* Calhoun Fire Department: $1,105,000, Georgia Search and Rescue Type II team

* Gordon County: $218,584, explosive ordnance demolition, interoperability equipment

* Walker County: $319,997, hazardous materials/mass casualty response

* Whitfield County: $450,000, mobile command post/communications center

Source: Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, Georgia Emergency Management Agency

ALABAMA SPENDING 2003-11

(Individual spending items not available.)

* DeKalb County: $1,184,285.42

* Jackson County: 499,376.51

Source: Alabama Department of Homeland Security

It was hammering storms, not hijacked jetliners, that smashed whole communities into splinters here in April.

But the legacy of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks showed up in the tornado response as rescuers pulled dazed and battered survivors from the wreckage in Apison, Tenn., in Trenton and Ringgold, Ga., and in Stevenson, Ala.

“Pretty much a majority all the equipment used [in Alabama’s tornado response] was purchased through our funding with the [U.S.] Department of Homeland Security,” said John Schermser, spokesman for the Alabama homeland security office.

That equipment includes extrication tools used to shift shattered walls and beams, backboards and bandages for the injured and protective gear from suits to boots for the emergency responders. And most of all, the radios.

“The biggest investment in homeland security system has been the interoperable radio system,” said Troy Spence, Bradley County Emergency Management Agency director. The 800 MHz system allows responders in myriad agencies to speak to each other on a single network.

“Communications is the top issue in every disaster,” Spence said. “It not only allows everyone to talk together, but everyone’s trained to the same operating standards. ... What matters is everybody’s preplanned, programmed and their radios are ready to talk on those mutual aid channels.”

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Tennessee has received more than $270 million in homeland security grants, said Rick Shipkowski, the state’s deputy homeland security adviser.

“In the last 10 years, Tennessee has developed unprecedented capabilities across the state, in large part because of these homeland security grants,” Shipkowski said.

Georgia’s take is even higher — close to $422 million, said Ken Davis, public affairs director for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

Alabama’s homeland security office couldn’t provide 10-year totals. Spokesman John Schermser said the initial grant was $37 million, but the state got only $5 million this year.

Spreading the wealth

Detailed spending by Homeland Security
Detailed spending by Homeland Security

Those dollars have paid for an amazing variety of equipment, from mobile command posts to chemical/biological/radiological detection equipment to mundane items such as boots, gloves, flashlights and batteries.

Spence said Bradley used some of its money to add more communications consoles at the county 911 center. When the tornadoes hit on April 27, there were 10 operators on duty instead of the usual five, he said.

“That was definitely a blessing,” he said.

The focus for spending the federal dollars has been on supplies and equipment that can be used every day, said Hamilton County Emergency Services Director Tony Reavley.

“It’s not just setting on a shelf, waiting for something; it’s something we can use on a day-to- day basis,” he said.

Besides day-to-day supplies, homeland security dollars also have paid for caches of gear and goods placed inside and outside metro areas that can be used for a variety of emergencies. Reavley said having dollars to buy shared supplies “allowed some commonality from one jurisdiction to another jurisdiction, so these things are compatible, such as heart monitoring equipment.”

And radios.

Shipkowski remembers how it was before the regional 800 MHz system, when the only way for responders from different agencies to talk to each other was to swap radios.

“The fire chief would give the police chief a radio, and the police chief would give EMS a radio,” Shipkowski said.

At an early homeland security meeting in Chattanooga in 2002, “there was one individual who had five radios. That was the only way we could establish interoperable communications,” he said.

Now all the regional agencies are on a radio net that stretches from just north of Atlanta to Knoxville.

“That was not even a vision 10 years ago,” he said.

Specialized skills

The federal money also has allowed regional agencies to develop specialized skills to use or share.

“Not every county needs a bomb squad, not every county needs a communications vehicle, not every county needs a SWAT team,” Shipkowski said.

In Chattanooga, an urban search and rescue team has special training in structures and the right tools to pierce concrete and cut rebar. A specially equipped boat makes sense for the Chattanooga Fire Department because “there’s a lot of critical infrastructure on the waterfront” of the Tennessee River, he said.

Gordon County, Ga., has secured grant after grant for explosives ordnance disposal, chemical/biological/radiological detection and response, bomb suits, high-level search and rescue.

Richard Cooper, emergency management agency director for Gordon, said the county’s top-rated search and rescue team was dispatched to search the demolished Days Inn in Ringgold after the tornadoes.

The county’s regional hazardous materials team — the largest in the state north of Cobb County in Atlanta, Cooper said — was chosen to provide security to the G8 summit on St. Simon’s Island, Ga., in 2004.

Cooper said the hazmat team used homeland security money for a hazardous materials analyzer that can analyze any substances in any form.

“Liquid, powder, whatever, put it in this machine and it’ll tell you what it is,” Cooper said. “If you crushed up some Chex Mix and put it in the machine, it’d tell you this is a Nabisco product.”

Tight-knit teams

Beyond vehicles and equipment, homeland security training and protocols have knitted the region’s responding agencies to what Shipkowski calls a “team of teams.”

Reavley agrees.

“You can’t place a monetary value on this, but it’s brought entities together that may never have sat down and talked,” he said.

“We’ve sat together, trained together, done things together that really developed relationships for a cohesive response. ... It’s helped us cut through a lot of the red tape and enabled us to efficiently respond in a more appropriate manner, wherever and whatever the emergency is,” he said.

Emergency planners have to believe it could be anything, anywhere — from the Talladega Superspeedway to Neyland Stadium to the Riverbend Festival or a TVA nuclear plant.

“I don’t want people to become complacent and think the terrorists are going away and not trying to attack our country,” said Schermser of Alabama Homeland Security.

No one’s sure what will happen to the flow of homeland security dollars as federal officials begin seriously cutting back spending to reduce budget deficits. Schermser said Alabama expects a 25 to 30 percent cut.

“We’re starting to let all our people in the field know that money is going to be mostly for sustainment of what we’ve already purchased,” he said.

But several of the state and local officials said a funding slowdown shouldn’t hurt the training and relationships built to date.

“Ten years ago, we learned a lot from a horrible incident,” Schermser said. “In 10 years, we’ve made great strides. Homeland security starts with hometown security. We’ve got to have buy-in from our small towns to prevent what happened 10 years ago from ever happening again.”

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about Judy Walton...

Judy Walton has worked 25 years at the Chattanooga Times and the Times Free Press as an editor and reporter focusing on government coverage and investigations. At various times she has been an assistant metro editor, region reporter and editor, county government reporter, government-beat team leader, features editor and page designer. Originally from California, Walton was brought up in a military family and attended a dozen schools across the country. She earned a journalism degree ...

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Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.
rolando said...

It is ever so much easier to eavesdrop on -- and second-guess or Monday-Morning-Quarterback -- one known narrow band of frequencies than 5 bands at unknown frequencies. More importantly, to take command.

Every up has a down; every advantage has a disadvantage.

Exactly why is Homeland Security becoming financially or administratively involved in natural disasters? Other than to increase its bureaucracy and employee count, of course.

To say nothing of State's Rights...you know, that Tenth Amendment thingee.

September 7, 2011 at 9:06 a.m.
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