Huntsville residents are no strangers to severe storms – particularly high winds and devastating tornados. This is the third story in series of articles on how City agencies prepare for severe weather as we enter peak season for storms.
Charles Brooks grew up in the Florida Panhandle, in case the Florida State Seminoles faux scoreboard clock above his desk and the football on his desk don’t provide enough of a clue.
Hurricanes were the natural disaster to fear and respect for Brooks. His first serious introduction to tornadoes came in 2011 as north Alabama was rocked by the April 27 storm.
“Man, just seeing the destruction” is what Brooks recalls from that event. “I had never seen destruction like that up close. That’s what stood out to me, the destruction that was caused and the team effort of everybody pulling together trying to help the citizens.”
Brooks is now in charge of that very team as a lieutenant who oversees the Special Operations Division for the City of Huntsville Police Department (HPD). Brooks’ command includes, among many, School Resource Officers, Special Events, traffic and DUI officers.
It also includes coordinating weather preparedness and reaction. As April approaches – the month in which a majority of tornadoes have struck north Alabama – Brooks is cognizant of the weather protocol HPD has in place. Several of his officers recently attended a tabletop exercise hosted by the Huntsville-Madison County Emergency Management Agency and another mock scenario for HPD and Huntsville Fire & Rescue is being developed.
“You can practice those things but you don’t know how it’s going to work until it actually happens,” Brooks says. “(Tornadoes) are all so unpredictable. You can prepare all day but until you actually get game-time experience, like the football analogy. The speed of the game. But the training kicks in, especially for what we do.”
As Brooks proudly says, “Police officers, we run to the trouble. We run to the tornado. We run to the disaster. It becomes natural because that’s what we do.”
There’s always room to learn from every situation. You can always grow. You can always do better.”
Police don’t blindly run to the tornado. There is planning. There is coordination, beginning with the RapidCast alert network that informs officers of impending serious weather situations.
In the event of a tornado hitting somewhere in the City of Huntsville, the lead role is taken by Huntsville Fire & Rescue. That’s the department with the equipment and training to deal with search and rescue.
“The fire department sets up command,” Brooks says. “We will assist them as backup.”
There is a good-natured rivalry between the two departments “but that’s when we all become buddies,” Brooks says. “We become brothers. It doesn’t matter the color of the uniform or the color of the car.”
After running to the tornado, priority one is safety. Says Brooks, “We’re assessing the damage. Who needs immediate help, getting to any injured citizens and getting them the help they need.”
Then come myriad roles. Continuing in search and rescue. Containing traffic. Securing affected areas. All done on 12-hour shifts, sometimes done working side-by-side with a stranger, as the lines between shifts and precincts are erased in disaster response.
Perhaps more than any other department, Huntsville Police Department is reminded that in a time of disaster, life goes on elsewhere. There are service calls to be made in areas unaffected by the storm. There are traffic accidents and domestic incidents and all sorts of bad guys who would thrive in a crippled environment. There is perhaps a curfew to enforce.
There could also be the challenge, as it was six years ago, with widespread loss of power and utilities. Even police officers were being powered by generators. All in all, though, the response and reaction by HPD get high grades from Brooks.
“There’s always room to learn from every situation,” he says. “You can always grow. You can always do better. The way the fire department and police department and other agencies came together as a team is great. The situation was one where it took an effort from everybody to pull their resources together and I think we did a good job. But everything can get better.”