Public Safety & Homeland Security

Georgia Gets Ready for Terrorism, Disasters With New GEMA Emergency Operations Center

From a terror attack, to hurricanes, wildfires or avian flu outbreaks, GEMA has a hierarchy of emergency specialists ready to mobilize.

by Liz Fabian, The Macon Telegraph / June 7, 2017
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(TNS) - Disaster can strike at any time, which means the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, Homeland Security, is open every minute of every hour of every day.

In a bunker in the GEMA headquarters’ basement on the east side of Atlanta, people are always ready to answer the call when calamity strikes.

From a terror attack, to hurricanes, wildfires or avian flu outbreaks, GEMA has a hierarchy of emergency specialists ready to mobilize.

Wednesday morning, Macon-Bibb County’s emergency planners visited the State Operations Center for their regular Emergency Support Functions meeting.

“We wanted to give you guys a little picture of what the state does, what are the state operations that happen when we are working at the local level to manage whatever disaster or situations we’re looking at,” Macon-Bibb EMA Director Spencer Hawkins told the group.

GEMA’s center, built before the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, is the hub of activity when emergency strikes.

By the end of next year, GEMA is planning to move into a new, three-story State Operations Center, or SOC. That building, which is about to be constructed next door, will adjoin the current bunker.

The facility will have technology upgrades and sleeping bunks for those working around the clock.

“Adding additional work space for our emergency support functions — that is our other state agencies that come in to assist us during state activations,” Lamar McEwen, director of GEMA’s State Operations Center said.

GEMA has 15 divisions that can respond to any crisis. Some deal with public safety and rescue, while others focus on transportation, public health, communications, energy and agriculture issues.

Macon-Bibb County’s EMA has a similar organizational structure, but with three added divisions to remove debris, provide damage assessments and coordinate with local businesses and industries.

Not only do the law enforcement, public health and other government workers have to respond to the problems plaguing the state, they must document each task for possible reimbursement from federal disaster funds.

Bibb County is still trying to recoup some expenses paid during the Mothers Day tornado of 2008.

“It’s about a 10-year process,” Hawkins told his team.

The paperwork begins immediately.

“If it’s going to cost your jurisdiction something... it’s got to be documented,” McEwen advised.

Documenting damage is critical to securing disaster declarations and states of emergency.

“We’re asking for numbers quick,” GEMA Director of Operations Clint Perkins said. “We need to know how many homes are damaged. We need to be able to present a picture to the governor to get that emergency declaration.”

Local agencies can take advantage of those declarations by requesting help from certain state agencies, like the Georgia Department of Transportation, which can operate outside of its normal boundaries under disaster declarations.

“It’s important in that short time window to capitalize on what’s available,” Perkins said.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation briefed the local EMA group on the vital task of screening tips on possible terrorist cells that could be operating in the state.

Andy Mossman, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the Georgia Information Sharing Analysis Center, said the recent bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, shows how vital it is to properly process tips that could prevent attacks.

National security is a priority, as is preparing for potentially damaging hurricanes.

“Any strike, but any category 3 or above is what keeps us awake,” McEwen said.

Hawkins and the Macon-Bibb County team are looking into ways to make shelter operations more efficient. Macon is a host community for people living along the 100 miles of Georgia coastline.

Macon-Bibb County Assistant Fire Chief Shane Edwards reminded GEMA of the current construction at Interstates 16 and 75, which is at the tail end of the evacuation routes.

Getting disaster experts together for regular planning is key to running efficient disaster and recovery operations, Hawkins said.

“A lot of this is about relationship building and making sure we know who is on the team and what we’re all doing.”

Liz Fabian: 478-744-4303, @liz_lines

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