Officials looking for ways to improve emergency response

In looking back over the local handling of Hurricane Michael, first responders identified communication as one of the greatest challenges but said the community showed itself to be resourceful and neighborly. Many of those on the front lines getting Grady County back on its feet in the aftermath of the hurricane met Tuesday morning for a follow-up meeting to debrief. Richard Phillips, Emergency Management Agency director for Grady County, said he wanted to use the information to “try and make this thing run smoother next time.”
Representatives from the Cairo Fire Department, county volunteer fire departments, Whigham Police Department, EMS, and county road department were among those who met for the debriefing.
When Hurricane Michael was at its height Wednesday evening, Oct. 10, winds in Grady County were sustained at approximately 65 mph with gusts reaching 85 mph, Phillips reports. Once the winds reached a reading of 35-40 mph, all law enforcement and emergency responders had to stand down and were unable to respond to any calls for help until the winds slowed to a safe speed. Many of those public servants gathered at the Emergency Operations Center on the second floor of the Cairo Fire Department to wait out the hurricane. When CFD lost electricity, a generator kicked in to keep it powered.
At some point in the night, the EOC in Cairo lost telephone communications with the Decatur-Grady 9-1-1 center in Bainbridge. Eventually, 9-1-1 told Grady County responders to utilize only two channels on their handheld radios with law enforcement on one channel and all other responders on the other, Phillips said.
Soon, all cell phone users in the county lost service when issues developed at area cell towers. Phillips said this made communicating with volunteer firefighters and road crews throughout the county nearly impossible. At Tuesday’s meeting, he said volunteer Chris Dorsey was to be commended for installing the EMA’s 40-watt CB radio at the EOC, a move that gave Phillips the capability of coordinating with responders out in the field who were armed only with their 3-watt handheld radios.
It was daybreak Thursday when crews could begin to try to respond to 9-1-1 calls for help and clear roads. “Out in the rural areas, we couldn’t even get to the fire stations,” said Ricky Powe, assistant chief of the Pine Level Volunteer Fire Department.
In addition to county and municipality road crews, volunteer firefighters, City of Cairo firefighters, and utility crews worked to clear the roads. The immediate focus was the main roadways in the cities of Cairo and Whigham and out in the county to allow freer movement for emergency crews and utility linemen. “We could crawl over trees if we had to get to you in a side street, but we had to clear the main roads to get even that close,” said Phillips. “I was very pleased with the way it worked, and everything was opened back up in two days. That went smooth.”
Powe asked whether the utilities representatives said anything about downed lines being mixed into the debris piles during the initial clearing. Cairo Fire Chief Bill Schafer said city utility officials had asked they be extra careful with the fiber optic cables. Phillips said he had not heard any feedback from EMC officials regarding lines in the debris.
Grady County Commissioner Keith Moye, who is also a volunteer firefighter, asked about the possibility of staging resources ahead of time. Phillips said he spoke with FEMA and learned he can get generators ahead of time, which he said he will do in future events. He said he waited to order ice and water, when he saw how quickly grocery stores and restaurants were were able to get power. “We were coming back on line so fast,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to take care of ourselves as much as we can the first 24 hours.”
Phillips contended state and federal officials would not stage resources in an area where they could be damaged or destroyed by the impending hurricane. However, he did say he was attending a meeting in Atlanta where he hoped to learn about how close he could stage resources, such as food and water, ahead of time.
Whigham Police Chief Tony Black asked if an ambulance could be staged in Whigham ahead of any future hurricanes. Phillips and others in the room said there was nowhere to park the ambulance that would be safe enough. Regardless, they said, the ambulance would have to wait for roads to be cleared before they could respond to the person in need, and likely even longer before they could transport anyone to the hospital due to blocked roads. Commissioner Moye said the volunteer fire department in Whigham was armed with some of the same equipment found on an ambulance and the volunteer firefighters could likely provide the same level of care in an emergency.
Limiting access to the EOC to only those necessary personnel was another concern voiced by responders, who said having extra people in the operations center added confusion and stress.
Communications with the public was a concern of many at the debriefing. With power, internet and cell communications down, firefighters suggested the local AM radio station, WGRA-790, could be a good way to push out information. Ready Georgia suggests people include battery-operated radios in their ready kit before a hurricane. Phillips also said mobile message boards, which don’t require electricity, could be another option.
Phillips said the cleanup from the hurricane in the county is ongoing, but did hit a snag this week for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is trying to work out an issue with a contractor. Another matter facing the corps, according to Phillips, is the identification of three 10-20 acre swaths that could be utilized for debris collection. He said the corps planned to divide all collected debris between three locations in the county and then utilize chippers to break down the debris.
Citizens who want to burn their debris should contact the Georgia Forestry Commission for free permits. Cairo Fire Lt. and State Fire Marshal Stephen McKinnon said city residents could contact the Cairo Fire Department for a free permit, and he preferred burn piles within the city be limited to 6’x6’ with natural vegetation only.
EMS director for Grady County, Rodney Gordon, along with Commissioner Moye praised Phillips for his work overseeing emergency operations. Cairo firefighters said that state emergency officials had voiced their pleasure at seeing the cohesive response effort in Grady County. Phillips said, “We are all one team in this together when it comes down to it, we’ve got each others’ backs.”

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