EMA: Establishing collaboration and awareness in severe weather situations

single-meta-cal March 28, 2017

Huntsville residents are no strangers to severe storms – particularly high winds and devastating tornados. This is the second in series of articles on how City agencies prepare for severe weather as we enter peak season for storms.

Scott Worsham describes the scene inside the Emergency Operations Center during disaster time as “something you see with the New York Stock Exchange. People taking information back and forth, coordinating on this, this group working on that.”

The Emergency Operations Center is housed within the Huntsville-Madison County Emergency Management Agency (EMA), which swings into action as the command center in the event of severe weather.

The EMA is jointly funded by the City of Huntsville, the City of Madison and Madison County, with the City of Huntsville administering its business operation. It is an eight-person department, headed by director Jeff Birdwell.

Jim Pockrus is the Emergency Operations Coordinator, with a staff of Emergency Management Officers that includes Chris Reed, Candy Sumlin and Worsham.

Located in the basement of City of Huntsville building on Fountain Circle, EMA’s Emergency Operations Center has a bunker feel to it, like something out of “Dr. Strangelove.” Giant TV screens hang everywhere. Heavy leather chairs rest behind a pair of long desks, each spot with a monitor and a telephone. Cubicles line another wall.

“If we have a chance of a big storm, we would be bringing people together (ahead of time) to listen to the National Weather Service briefing….we’d be facilitating discussion…what’s the City of Huntsville doing? What’s Madison doing? Schools, what are your plans?”

It is a gathering place for the EMA staff, government officials, representatives from various first-responder organizations and agencies who can be dramatically affected by severe weather, such as Huntsville City Schools and Redstone Arsenal.

The EMA is more a facilitator and communicator. It may be a command center, but it issues no commands.

“We don’t have the authority to tell somebody to do X, Y or Z,” Worsham says. “We can only say, if something happens, it’s the appropriate time for you to do X, Y or Z.”

What the EMA does is serve as the ultimate clearinghouse for information. The first threads of information come from the National Weather Service. But as a self-proclaimed “weather nerd,” it’s not as if Worsham is ever surprised by phone calls or warnings.

“If we have a chance of a big storm, we would be bringing people together (ahead of time) to listen to the National Weather Service briefing,” Worsham says. “After that’s over, we’d be facilitating discussion between the departments. What’s the City of Huntsville doing? What’s Madison doing? Schools, what are your plans?”

“If nothing else, that ensures the awareness is good. And there could be a point brought up by one agency that hadn’t been thought of by another agency. Sharing information allows them to go back and know what the best information available is.”

Should a significant storm occur, the EOC “becomes a little bit louder, a little bit faster,” Worsham says.

Calls come in about injuries. About debris that must be removed. About power outages.

Calls go back out to first responders. To public works crews. To surrounding counties.

Meanwhile, “We’ve got elected officials coming in who want to know what’s going on.”

While a tornado is still on the ground, it’s being closely tracked on radar. EMA learns where it has touched down, where most damage may have been done, and helps dispatch appropriate assistance. Then comes the coordination of search-and-rescue while also communicating with shelters, to assure there is refuge for those in need.

“There are all sorts of considerations that follow in a timeline,” Worsham says. But the time in that line is distorted. “Hours,” he says, “can seem like minutes.”

What happens after the storm, the success in coping with the urgency of the moment and the long recovery afterward, is built well before the skies cloud.

The Emergency Management Agency holds myriad classes and seminars year-round to inform citizens about how to be more prepared for storms. As many as 300 have attended the annual Storm Spotter Class in conjunction with the National Weather Service. Officials do considerable public speaking to encourage preparedness.

You see, communication is the essence of the Emergency Management Agency, after, during and before a natural disaster.

Read the first in the series: “Severe weather: Storm preparation is serious business”