THE MAGAZINE

Urban Area Perspective - Atlanta

By Joseph Straw
 

Is fiscal sustainability a greater challenge in the economic crisis? If so, how are you adjusting?

 
I don’t think anyone has been left unaffected by that anywhere in the United State. And there is great fear in this business that at some point in time the federal funds are going to dry up. When they do, how do we maintain all these systems, some of them very complex and sophisticated, how do we find the funding to maintain these systems going forward? I’ve been around the business for 35-plus years now. And when I first got into emergency management it was called civil defense and that was in the late 1970s. And as a young staffer, one of my first duties was to go out to these old facilities designated throughout our jurisdiction as fallout shelters. And it was in those designated fallout shelters that you had tons of equipment. You had tons of supplies. You had tons of what were at one time very useable resources that went dormant and fell into disrepair. And one of my first duties in this career was to take down those resources and salvage what was usable, and to dispose of the rest. And I’m afraid that in the future, a few decades down the road, someone somewhere in some fire department in the Midwest or in the South or wherever is going to be assigned that detail to go into that store room and sort out old homeland security materials and supplies.
 

How would you characterize your office’s relationship with its federal partners? What would you change, if anything?

 
If I could change anything I’d turn the clock back to the very beginning. Why the federal government had to create a completely different to system to funnel grants and administer them down to the local level I will never understand. It seems like a duplication. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had been doing that for decades and they were set up to do it and I think they missed a real opportunity at that point to make the system better and not put in more bureaucracy.
 
Having said that, hindsight’s 20-20, and I think our relationship is great with the state and federal folks. I find them all very professional and a dedicated group. But I think there are two changes that I would make now if I had the opportunity. First I would seek an outright accommodation from DHS for local governments to spend federal grant funds to hire employees in all disciplines to manage the projects that we’ve applied for grants to fund and implemented. There are just a lot of restrictions on hiring. They almost prefer that you hire a contractor versus hiring someone that you can put on staff and make a force multiplier for other things that you do day-in and day-out. Second, I would hope that DHS begins to focus more on the all-hazards concept of disasters and their consequences. In my mind it’s a practical and forthright argument that it doesn’t matter what causes disaster. Whether it was a manmade terrorist act, or it a hurricane or tornado or an earthquake or whatever. The consequences are pretty much the same across the board. And if we prepare ourselves to take care of any and all of those, then I think we’re a better-prepared country and certainly better-prepared communities across the country.
 

Does your office engage the private sector? If so, how?

 
We feel that government to business communication is a vital part of our strategic plan. The private sector owns most of the national infrastructure coming through Atlanta here, and they’re our partners in helping us protect infrastructure. In the urban core we have the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, which is dedicated to coordinating corporations and local downtown resources and our major venues downtown and transportation systems. We have two major universities down here, and so it’s an interesting collaboration between them and then there are many corporate headquarters in the urban area as well, and some in the surrounding counties. The private sector is a very important piece of it all, and I note that many of our corporate people have put added staff to handle homeland security issues with local government.

 

Have any recent responses or exercises generated valuable lessons-learned?

 
When I first got here we were in the middle of the worst drought we’d been in in a number of years. Well two months later they had the worst flooding they’ve ever had here in the Atlanta area. We had a severe flood event last September. It was a presidentially declared disaster. At one point during the middle of the flood event every major interstate in and out of Atlanta was shut down. None of the bridges over the Chattahoochee River were going to our suburban counties to the west. There wasn’t any way anyone could get across any of those. I essentially had a few hundred thousand people trapped in the city because they couldn’t get out because there was no way to go. That was a lesson right there that you need a contingency plan in your back pocket to deal with a situation like that. Thankfully that only lasted hours instead of days. If it had lasted days, then we’d have been in trouble. So that got me to thinking along those lines that we need in these extreme events we need some contingency plan to take care of people and shelter in place in the city.
 
I think the other thing that always comes up in these sort of big events like that is our communications issues. God almighty I hope someday we’re able to resolve those because again, you find time and time again that adjacent jurisdictions even in large, supposedly very sophisticated urban areas have different communication systems and aren’t able to communicate one-to-one on the street even though you cross jurisdictional lines every day when you’re a responder.
 
We’re actually using the UASI funding and instigated a project a number of years ago under the umbrella of interoperability that is designed to have daily daytime users, especially for those jurisdictions that are not up yet to the level that some other jurisdictions might be. It’s a way to give them a jump start, and they’re able to buy into the system without having to go it alone. There’s a very, very expensive infrastructure needed to build an 800 MHz radio system. We still have no daily users on the system but the infrastructure is slowly being put in place. Hopefully by next year we’ll begin having some daily users on that system and this will go a long way, especially for our smaller surrounding counties, to getting a more interoperable region-wide communications system.
 
So I think those are two things, one is sheltering in place but the other is an ongoing problem about building communications between different agencies.
 

What are your office’s biggest goals going forward?

 
I’ve got two or three. I’ve only had six or seven months thus far in which we haven’t been managing responses, and I think in during that assessment period I think we first saw we need to step back, see where we’re at and move forward with reaffirming our emergency operations concepts, command and control and so forth. I know that sounds like a modest goal, but it’s really one that has to get done. I think every so often you need to evaluate yourself that way.
 
For my personal agency goals, there is an Emergency Management Accreditation Program at the national level and I hope to implement that accreditation process for the agency to become a fully accredited national agency. And there’s only a handful out there now and we would like to be among them. And finally I think at one time the emergency operations facilities and centers that make up the Atlanta-Fulton County emergency operations team were state-of-the-art, especially before the Olympics in the mid-1990s. Not a lot have been done to them since then and they’re really in need to upgrade to the 2010 standards in terms of technology capability and overall ambience. So I’m really working hard at trying to find the funding and the capability to put together and develop and fund a new emergency operations center for the city of Atlanta and Fulton County.

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