Security Management interviews Tony Carper, director of the Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency.
Tony Carper is director of the Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency, responsible for the coordination of emergency planning and response operations for the jurisdictions’ more than 2 million annual residents and visitors. Previously, Tony worked in emergency management and response in Florida and Georgia for over 32 years. He is the former director of the Broward County (Florida) Emergency Management Agency. During his 14 years there he coordinated operations for county government, 31 municipalities, and the almost 2 million residents and visitors, culminating with response to and recovery from Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Before his stint in South Florida, Carper served as director of emergency management and communications for Brevard County, Florida, coordinating responses to emergencies including floods, fires, hazardous material incidents, and hurricanes. In addition, he organized community emergency support for over 75 launches from Kennedy Space Center including response to the catastrophic loss of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. Carper is a former president of both the Florida Emergency Preparedness Association and the Florida Governor’s Hurricane Conference. For his work in the emergency management and hurricane preparedness Carper has received the Governor’s Award, the highest recognition of the Florida Governor’s Hurricane Conference, and the Dr. Robert Sheets Lifetime Commitment Award from the South Florida Hurricane Conference. Tony served in the U.S. Army and is a Vietnam veteran. He attended the United States Armed Forces Institute.
What are the responsibilities of your office?
We’re the Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency. Like most emergency management agencies, the local agency is the primary counterpart for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In the old days I think they called us civil defense agencies, back when Defense Civil Preparedness Agency and those folks assisted at the federal level, but now it’s all emergency management. We have primary responsibility for the city of Atlanta and Fulton County, and I think that’s a fairly unique arrangement in that we are a joint-funded and supported agency by those two jurisdictions. I don’t think you find that very common in most urban areas, but both of those governments support us and we in turn support and coordinate their activities.
What assets and threats are unique to your area?
The Atlanta urban area is one of the primary urban centers in the Southeast, and in the United States for that matter, and it really is a very high-density regional and national hub for things such as transportation, communications, pipelines, highways, banking, and other corporate infrastructure. Like many urban centers Atlanta has multiple major venues for sports, entertainment, and tourism. Also one of our major points of concern is of course the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which I think everyone knows ranks as one of the busiest airports in the world in terms of passengers and aircraft volume. The old saying is that you can’t get anywhere in the Southeast without going through Atlanta, and certainly threats to any of this infrastructure, whether it be public or private, pose a challenge in terms of homeland security.
On the natural side have the four seasons of hazards here in the Atlanta area. We have several major riverine flood basins that flow through the Atlanta metro area. One of the bigger ones is the Chattahoochee River, which goes from Lake Lanier on down to the Gulf of Mexico, and just last September there was a significant rainfall event here that damaged thousands of homes in the City of Atlanta and in surrounding areas, and also there are other natural hazards like tornadoes and we’re close enough to the Gulf and the Atlantic Ocean here to occasionally get some tropical activity. Then this winter we had a couple minor ice events, but not like anything up north.
How does the region plan and administer federal Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant funds?
We have a very—I would call it sophisticated, some would call it complex—but I think it’s a good charter that provides governance of UASI funds. Our region includes the City of Atlanta, Fulton County, DeKalb County, Cobb County, and Clayton County. And each of those jurisdictions has representation on four levels of governance within the UASI organization. And that ranges from a technical level, subject matter-expert level or committee level—that goes onto a strategic planning group, like fire chiefs, police chiefs, those types of people—to the executive management team, which are city county managers and their representatives, and finally to the policy level, which consists of elected officials. And the process for administering homeland security dollars starts when committees take the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) guidance for any given grant cycle, and they put projects together based on the priorities formulated by DHS, then the strategic planning group, which are fire chiefs and police chiefs, weave these proposals into the overall requirements and needs of each participating emergency response discipline. And then the executive level of course takes it and makes evaluations and then recommends these proposals based upon jurisdictional financial and budget policies and goals and so forth. And they refer those over to the policy group, which makes the final determinations to apply for those federal grant dollars that are available based upon all of the homework that’s been done by those other groups.
The planning process parallels that at every level. DHS comes out with a very thick book of guidance each year. And we’ve already established strategic plans within the region from previous years’ cycles, and we line those up each given year with what DHS priorities are, what our priorities have been, and what they continue to be, and what the needs of the disciplines are within all of the jurisdictions to meet the requirements of our strategic plan and of the DHS priorities. So that is the planning process as we go through the motions of formulating grant proposals every year.
What is the greatest challenge your office faces?
Well, there are just a lot of moving parts. And I think the biggest challenge has been to complete and coordinate all of the new capabilities we need. If you go back to the very beginning there was little or no capability beyond your normal fire and law enforcement and EMS response capability. Well, as time has gone by we have built additional capabilities into the system, but these continue to grow more complex, and with more moving parts, and it becomes a challenge year-in and year-out to coordinate all of those pieces, and to in the end, wind up with a workable solution and a workable project that will meet your needs.
What is one of your region’s greatest successes?
I think the biggest success is just the process itself. I think our ability to put together this regional system of governance, our ability to collaborate together, even though there are many disparate points of view and different agendas and competing interests among the regional partners, I think it’s a great accomplishment in itself to get them all to focus on one common effort and one common strategic planning goal. I think just the communications aspect of the whole urban area and the homeland security initiatives have been, I would say, our biggest success.
Did planning the Olympics in 1996 inform the post-9-11 mission?
At that time I was a director in South Florida and, believe it or not, we were involved in South Florida in the Atlanta Olympics because we had a couple of venues down there that had some preliminary rounds; but I would think that it’s very similar to the Olympic effort in that everyone was coming together for the good of the region, and it sort of helped everyone put aside their differing views on regional development and transportation and all these other pesky issues that plague urban areas. So I think it probably did have some carry-over even though as I said I wasn’t here in this jurisdiction. But just hearing people talk in our discussions and meetings I hear a lot of people refer back to that time and it has a similar ring to it.
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.