Hamilton County's steady hand in a storm is retiring (with video)

Hamilton County's steady hand in a storm is retiring (with video)

January 20th, 2013 by Pam Sohn and Kate Belz in Local Regional News

Bill Tittle, Hamilton County's emergency management chief, speaks during an interview at his office. Tittle is retiring this week after 14 years at the helm of the agency.

Photo by Patrick Smith /Times Free Press.


* Position: Chief of Emergency Management for Hamilton County since 1998.

Age: 77

* Family: Wife, Dianne; three children; five grandchildren; two stepgrandchildren; four great-grandchildren.

* Professional background: Worked at and managed Durr-Fillauer (now Fillaur Cos. Inc.) medical supply company on Amnicola Highway for 30 years; served on the Chattanooga Airport Authority; board member for the Riverbend Festival; volunteer with Emergency Management Agency before becoming chief of Emergency Management in 1998.

* Hobbies: Being outdoors, hiking, riding Harleys, piloting planes, boating and spending time with his grandchildren.

Bill Tittle was there at midnight on New Year's Eve 13 years ago, sitting in Hamilton County's emergency command center as the world expected mass blackouts once computer clocks rolled into the new millennium.

He was there to help gear up local security precautions after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He was there again in May 2003, when floods swamped 1,000 businesses and 3,000 homes.

He was there in 2005 to witness the heartbreak of hundreds of Katrina refugees who were flown to Chattanooga for shelter.

And he was there, time after time in the past three years, as more than 10 tornadoes razed neighborhoods in Apison, Collegedale, Red Bank, Signal Mountain and Harrison.

For 14 years, Tittle, Hamilton County's chief of emergency management, has been there -- in command centers, in emergency shelters, and the wilderness -- for the worst. He has spent 14 years of long days and late nights guiding response efforts through some of the most alarming disasters the county has seen.

When Tittle hasn't been dealing with disaster, he has worked to prepare for the next one. He has a mental Rolodex of worst-case scenarios: Domestic terror attacks. Catastrophic floods. Wilderness rescues in deadly conditions. When someone says, "It can't get much worse," Tittle knows, in great detail, how it can.

In spite of it all, Tittle remains a stubborn optimist.

"There's the overused phrase: Plan for the worst and hope for the best," he said. "And as an optimist, I feel like if [the worst] does happen, that we're pretty doggone well-prepared."

Tittle, 77, is retiring this week on that philosophy. That doesn't mean he relaxes easily. It's hard to talk with him for 10 minutes without his phone buzzing. On Wednesday he was awake at 5:45 a.m., eyeing the South Chickamauga flood gauges as rain drenched the county.

Tittle is quick to explain that his job is not the same as a first responder's. His role is to be a steady hand to help direct relief efforts, coordinate agencies, to think two steps ahead.

Chattanooga Fire Chief Randy Parker said Tittle has a huge number of relationships with agencies in the emergency world, and he knows who to link together to get and give help.

And Tittle's deep voice -- a perfect match for his giant frame -- never wavers or rises in emergency situations -- something that always keeps responders on the same even keel.

"He knows how to work a room, and even when people do butt heads, he doesn't let there be hard feelings. He called me today and told me if there's ever anything he can do to help I should call him. And we may do that. Good advice is hard to find," Parker said.

The term "emergency management" has different connotations than it did in 1998, when Tittle came out of early retirement to take his current post.

The 9/11 attacks ushered in a new era of security. Shifting weather patterns and storm systems have swept devastating floods into the state, and slung deadly tornadoes into an area where many thought they were immune from such havoc. Emergency management needs to adapt, he said.

"We need to make sure we don't become complacent, and that we keep changing with the times," he said. "We're seeing weather systems change. We've seen flooding throughout the West Tennessee area. ... We have to think that could happen here, and prepare for that."

Besides working with large-scale weather catastrophes, Tittle also has had to deal with hundreds of more intimate tragedies.

He has waited for hours on riverbanks with families, as crews fished their relatives' bodies' from the water. He has watched children pulled from fires after it is too late to save them. He vividly recalls a deadly car accident where the victims, two elderly sisters, still had their shopping bags stacked neatly in the back seat of their mangled car. He remembers feeling helpless after meeting a family of Hurricane Katrina evacuees who had lost their home and their entire business.

Tittle's wife, Dianne, said it can be difficult for her husband to open up about the things he has seen.

"Sometimes I've waited a day or two before he'd talk about it. And then I'd just listen, because that's really the best thing I can do," she said. "He's kept a lot of it inside."

Tittle can't forget these things, he said.

"You have to learn to stay a little bit [at] arm's length from it," he said. "But you also have to let them know you want to help any way you can. You have to be sincere about that."

Willie and Marvin Quinn, an elderly couple who lost everything but their lives in the Apison tornadoes of April 2011, felt that sincerity firsthand.

"We feel blessed to know him," said Willie. "He was kind, courteous, friendly and truthful. If he told you he would do something and if it was in his power to do it, you could bet on it. We feel he's going to be hard to replace because his heart was in it."

Tittle said the Quinns really touched him when he found Willie walking dazed through the rubble that had been their home since they built it as newlyweds. He couldn't help but hug her.

Week after week as the Quinns and their neighbors pulled their lives back together, Tittle drove through Apison and other tornado-strewn neighborhoods to check on the people.

"I don't know how many trips he made out here to see if there was any way he could help," Willie Quinn said.

After volunteers rebuilt the Quinns' home, they invited the Tittles to dinner.

"He had always teased me about why I didn't fix him some pinto beans, and I told him I would someday. So I made good on it," Willie said.

The spirit of people like the Quinns is one more reason why Tittle says he stays optimistic. While touring the damage from the tornadoes, he watched with amazement as volunteers walked for miles lugging water and chain saws to try to help complete strangers.

"We live in a community with a lot of compassion," he said.

Tittle says he has stuck with the job longer than he intended to help put his granddaughter through graduate school. Now that she's finished, he can start to visualize a quieter life. He asked colleagues not to throw him a farewell party, saying he's not really the social type.

He's going to bring out his old Harley and his boat from the basement, to try to spend more time outdoors with his grandchildren.

Dianne Tittle said she knows retirement will be a welcome adjustment for her husband, but it may be a difficult one.

"It will be strange with his phone not ringing so much," she said. "It will be difficult for him to just sit back and not do everything. I have concerns about that. He knows that."

Tittle admits that he probably won't be able to stop himself from watching weather reports and radar maps during storms.

"I think that's just built in me that I'll do that," he says.