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April 29, 2013

Whitfield, Murray officials say much better prepared for disasters

During the past five years, Whitfield County’s emergency management plan has gone from 400 pages to more than 1,500 pages, said Emergency Management Director Claude Craig.

“It’s always a work in progress. We are always learning,” he said. “We learn a lot from actual incidents we are involved in. We lend assistance to our surrounding counties and really all over the state of Georgia.”

While the county has to be prepared for a wide range of possible disasters, Craig says two main threats dominate planning.

“On the manmade side, we have a lot of places in Whitfield County that have reportable amounts of certain chemicals that could cause a problem if a breach occurs and they are released into the air or waterways,” he said. “On the natural disaster side, severe weather — tornados, severe storms, winter storms — is our main concern. We’ve seen in surrounding counties just recently the sort of damage that severe weather can cause.”

Murray County Fire Chief and Emergency Management Director Dewayne Bain said those are the top concerns there, as well.

“We have the CSX railroad coming through. We have U.S. 411 bringing truck traffic through, so we do have chemical concerns,” he said. “But severe weather is still the most likely disaster we’ll face.”

Officials with both counties have taken a number of steps to improve their responses to disaster. For instance, both have put into place plans to remove and dispose of debris after a disaster.

“We are much better prepared than we were five years ago,” Bain said.

Whitfield County has in place a program to train and manage volunteers who wish to help out after a disaster. The Emergency Management Agency’s CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) program is offered free to county residents. A new session started over the weekend. Six previous classes since 2010 resulted in 123 graduates, many of whom have helped after tornadoes in Catoosa and Gordon counties.

“CERT is designed to help you protect yourself, your family and your immediate community in the event of a major situation in your neighborhood,” said Jeff Ownby, deputy EMA director. “While people will respond to others in need without the training, one goal of the CERT program is to help them do so effectively and efficiently without placing themselves in unnecessary danger, therefore minimizing one’s risk of bodily injury and simply becoming another victim.”

Participants receive training in disaster preparedness, fire safety, medical operations and basic first aid, search and rescue, and more. The “final exam” is a mock disaster drill. For more  information about this free program, contact Craig, Ownby or Carla Kelley with Whitfield County 911 at (706) 370-4911 or email cert@whitfieldcountyga.com. You can also check out the program on Facebook at Whitfield CERT. For more information about the national CERT program, visit www.citizencorps.gov/cert/.

Whitfield County also put a CodeRed system into place two years ago.

CodeRed provides two services for the county. First, it allows county officials to issue emergency notifications to residents, such as alerting them to chemical spills and other emergencies. Those alerts can be targeted to specific parts of the county and can be tailored to give residents instructions on how they should react.

“If you have a landline, you are automatically in the system, and you’ll get the call. If you don’t have a landline, you have to opt into the system, give us your cellphone number and let us put it into the system,” Craig said.

The second service CodeRed provides is alerting people to severe weather warnings from the National Weather Service. Residents have to sign up for this service whether they have a landline telephone or a cellphone. You can sign up at whitfieldcountyga.com.

Murray County does not currently have a CodeRed system, but Bain said putting CodeRed or a similar system into place is one of his top priorities. Murray County uses a system called Nixle, which allows county officials to send mass text messages and email.

Unlike some other parts of the country, most governments in Northwest Georgia don’t rely on sirens to alert the public to severe weather or other emergencies.

Whitfield County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Babb said earlier this year that county officials have considered sirens several times “and the answers always come back the same. Our terrain is very hilly, and that keeps the sound from going far. They wouldn’t be as effective as they are in places that are flat. Plus, the cost would be very high.”

Dalton Mayor David Pennington said city officials have also looked at sirens and rejected them for the same reasons.

Walker County Emergency Management Agency Director David Ashburn said officials there developed a grant proposal for sirens to cover 90 percent of that county and the cost came back at $2 million to purchase, plus approximately $100,000 a year in utilities, maintenance and other costs.

The cities of Chickamauga and LaFayette do have emergency sirens.

“Those are old sirens that they originally used to call out their volunteer firefighters. They use pagers and other things for that now, and as that technology replaced the sirens they began to use them for other things. But they didn’t have to pay a cent for them,” Ashburn said.

Gordon County has both a CodeRed system and sirens, but the county is phasing out its use of sirens.

Some emergency officials say sirens are too limited.

“I personally don’t like sirens. You hear a siren, and then what?” said Bain.

Ashburn agreed.

“Making a noise doesn’t tell you anything. But our alerting system can tell you ‘There’s a tornado in this area.’ Or ‘We’ve got a lost child in this area.’ Or ‘We’ve got flooding in this area.’ Or ‘We’re opening a shelter and here’s where it is,’” he said. “And if you’ve got the weather alert, it tells you the same thing you hear on the weather radio.”

Mitch Talley, Whitfield County director of communications, contributed to this story. Some material in this story first appeared in the newspaper in February of this year.

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