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The Makings of Disaster: Collaboration – Realizing Separation is Only Two Degrees

By Stacey Mann

On the afternoon of April 27, 2011, an EF-4 tornado with estimated maximum wind speed of 190 mph traveled through Greene, Tuscaloosa and Jefferson Counties in Alabama. In its first life, the tornado raged for 1 hour and 31 minutes. By the time it crossed Interstate 65, it was 1.5 miles wide. The nation watched as news crews filmed the tornado as it made its way through Tuscaloosa toward Birmingham.

em 2The following morning, residents of Calhoun County were cleaning up debris and clearing roads after strong, straight-line winds caused damage to many areas. By that afternoon, they watched in exhaustion as the tornado in Tuscaloosa slowly made its way northeast. According to John De Block, a warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office in Birmingham, the tornado slowly weakened but reformed in Birmingham. In its second life, residents of Jefferson, St. Clair, Etowah, Cherokee and Calhoun Counties took shelter while the EF-4, with 180 mph winds, traveled a total of 71.30 miles. With a lifespan of 1 hour and 17 minutes, at its maximum the tornado was a mile wide.

In Calhoun County, area residents, first responders, volunteers and other emergency personnel raced to Webster’s Chapel and Ohatchee, two rural towns just outside Anniston. The scene was one that has been described so many other times – in Joplin, in Greensburg, and that same day, in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. While the response to such a tragic event was excellent, as in all cases of crisis, individuals in Calhoun County saw where, if there was ever going to be a next time, they wanted their response to be even better.

Since April 2011, many things have changed in Calhoun County. While it is not to say that prior to the disaster organizations and agencies did not get along or cooperate. In fact, that was not the case at all. People from all occupations and agencies began to see the need for greater collaboration. In a state that is known for wanting to help others, it seemed that the greatest way to do that in the county was to work together.  As a result, new organizations have formed and within those organizations are police officers, firefighters, professors, area businesses, government officials, students and residents, all working together.

One of those organizations was the brainchild of Calhoun County Emergency Management Director Jonathan Gaddy and Public Information Officer Tammy Bain. After attending the advanced public information officer course at FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness, Gaddy suggested they create a program in which individuals from various organizations serve to assist public officials, the emergency management agency and others on media-related issues following a disaster. This might include writing press releases, keeping public officials up to date and assisting with media calls. The members of the Calhoun County External Affairs Support Team, or EAST, include individuals from first response agencies, academia, area businesses, among others.

Another organization that developed in the last year is the Eastern Alabama Coalition for Emergency Managers. This organization brings together emergency managers from counties in Eastern Alabama as well as representatives from state and federal government, military, faculty and students from Jacksonville State University. Dr. Jeff Ryan, head of the department of emergency management at Jacksonville State University, wanted to form relationships between the department and county emergency management offices and begin to understand how each could assist the other with needs and demands. In a profession that tends to be the first to see budgets slashed when the economy is slow, understanding the resources and capabilities that might be available to improve not only daily operations, but also during times of crisis, is critical. As the coalition has grown, so have relationships, and the result has been one in which people in different agencies and counties discuss and identify solutions to problems that are faced by a few or even all.

Dr. Ryan states, “When we first started this effort we had no idea that there would be an interest in joining the Coalition or a need for it. Now, after a year of cooperation and communication it’s clear that EM professionals in this region see the Coalition as a very positive development.” Ryan goes on to say, “The faculty of this Department should serve the Region and the State. Furthermore, they learn so much about the practice as they serve the membership and form essential relationships that benefit them and their students.”

Doctoral students who took the disaster management principles and practices course were asked why collaboration in emergency management is so important. Tim Sevison, who currently works in emergency planning, training and education, said, “The primary value and importance of collaboration is building the trust between disparate entities that is necessary for the mission areas of response, recovery and mitigation to be successful.”

Celeste Richardson, CEO of the security-consulting firm, 3.14 Technology, added, “Collaboration is important because emergency management encompasses many different sciences. An emergency manager must be competent in many skills. The only way to accomplish gaining a board level of knowledge is to work closely with different experts. Collaboration helps answer questions with diverse levels of perception.”

In a county with a population just over 117,000, the degrees of separation between Calhoun residents may max out at two. As individuals began chatting before and after meetings, collaboration becomes all the easier because the person sitting to the right knew your parents when they were in high school. The person to left has a son that attends the same school as your child. With that in mind, mitigating for, preparing for, responding to and recovering from a disaster makes the work personal and understanding the direct impact on family and friends offers a bit more motivation. And while this is not to say that collaboration will always be easy, understanding its importance makes it all the more clear that the long-term result of hard work and dedication may not be just addressing a problem before it occurs, but rather protecting and saving a loved one.

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