An interview with the acting director of Georgia Office of Homeland Security (GEMA).
Interview with Charley English
Charley English was appointed acting director of Georgia Office of Homeland Security (GEMA) in February 2006 and took over the post permanently in May of that year. He joined the agency a decade before that as part of its planning team for the Atlanta Centennial Olympic Games, then served as its director of operations. Earlier, English served as an officer with the Clayton County Police Department, then as a regional police academy director; he later managed the state’s ten regional academies. English attended Georgia State University and earned his master’s degree in homeland security and defense from the Naval Postgraduate School, winning the Professor Phillip Zimbardo Award for academic achievement. (His remarks have been edited.)
Can you describe your general responsibilities? What is a typical day or week like?
Well, in this job there’s no typical day or week, because weather always has a vote. My primary responsibility is to prepare for any event that requires multi-agency coordination, and a lot of what GEMA does is respond to natural disasters. We have 159 counties, and each county has a local emergency management agency. At least once a day I try to do something that’s going to support a local program. My primary responsibility is to lend support however I can and to improve preparedness on the state level.
What did you take from the experience of the Olympic Park bombing?
Terrorism certainly takes on a very different connotation now. Freedom and “having a good time” versus security is the first thing that comes to mind. That was a point that was discussed in 1996 because the Olympic Park was an open-air, unrestricted venue. Of course the organizers wanted that very much, and I think visitors to our state enjoyed that. The security officials, of course, saw the potential danger in that kind of situation. That’s the balance we have living in a free country—liberty versus security.
What are the top issues and threats your agency focuses on?
From a frequency standpoint, our number one threat is tornadoes, followed closely by flooding. We only have about a 110-mile coastline. We’re certainly vulnerable to hurricanes and inland flooding, but we also are a state where people flee to get away from the impact of hurricanes: Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, send a lot of evacuees to and through Georgia as they seek shelter from a storm. We saw that to a completely different level in Katrina.
Can you discuss Georgia’s reception operation during Katrina?
We actually thought Georgia would be impacted by the storm, and we did shelter 45,000 of our own residents for a couple of nights. But who would have thought we would end up with more than 125,000 people we had to find homes for? These were not just people needing 2 or 3 nights’ stay seeking shelter to go back home. That was the intent when they came, but there was no home and city to go back to.
Initially they stayed in hotel rooms. But as the national debate steered evacuees away from those hotels, it became an issue primarily for local governments that chose to take on the housing mission. We only had about 5,000 who were transported here officially through FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and other channels. The remaining people had self-evacuated. They had jobs and skills, and it became, after a couple months, a resettlement mission.
What did your agency learn from hurricane Katrina?
That people and agencies will step up to the plate and answer when their name is called. And that if you have those basic systems in place, and people and agencies know where to go to get the information, and to get the general plan of what do we do next, they will step up and give, and give, and give until it hurts.
Can you discuss Gema’s role in repatriating americans during last year’s war in Lebanon?
Because of our international airport here in Atlanta, the state had been told for a number of years that if the federal government had to repatriate citizens, we were one of the locations that would be considered. Well, sure enough this past year, our name was called. We’re expert in designing recovery centers to help victims get what they need in times of disaster. And we were able—through partnerships—to ensure that people’s immediate needs were taken care of. We even provided babysitting services so the parents could go get airline tickets and check luggage and run, get a bite to eat real quick, and get on another airplane to go back home. We handled between 2,000 and 2,500 people.
How do you feel about DHS’s shift to risk-based urban-area grants, with Atlanta in the second tier?
Generally, the way the pendulum’s swinging on the terrorism grants, I’m in support of it. I think that funding should be risk-based and hazard-based. And I think that if the formula is appropriately developed and implemented, we should go with that formula.
Has the state conducted any major drills recently? what did officials learn?
We had a huge, statewide hurricane exercise in December, and I think we learned a valuable lesson in that you can sometimes almost exercise too big. A lot of times the various players don’t get tested to the depths that they need to be tested. It’s good to have a real big exercise, but we feel like it needs to be followed by smaller, more in-depth ones.
Does your agency work with the private sector? if so, how?
We’ve been told that Georgia has a national model in our work with the private sector. For a long time, we’ve had private sector—primarily critical infrastructure providers—sit right alongside us in our state operations center. Business Executives for National Security, or BENS, has been with us for many years. We felt like we needed to establish a business operations center to provide supplemental assets to the scene of a disaster but also to collect, collate, and push out information. And that’s such a big piece of disaster response, that information flow.
Our business operations center has about 25 core companies, and BENS has agreed to bring together the people who sit in our state operations center to facilitate that information exchange. We feel like it’s really going to grow.
What are your agency’s top goals for the coming year?
I really want to capture the impact emergency management has on the entire state. I think it’s important for us to quantify that response so we can paint a picture of what it brings to the table and helps resolve, primarily at the local level.
Internally, we’re developing metrics for our staff with regard to our customer service and how fast, friendly, and responsive we are to our primary customers’ requests. Also, we started an initiative last fall to re-energize our airline crash-detail plans. We have specific plans in place, but there are a lot of new players in the airline industry, and it’s time to review that and bring everyone back to the table.