Madison County EMA Director Rusty Russell Discusses Emergency Preparadness & Response

(WHNT) – The April 28 2014 tornadoes were a stark reminder of the destruction natural disasters are capable of. Though severe weather only occasionally impacts our lives every year, it’s on one man’s mind 365 days per year.

Rusty Russell is the Director of the Madison County EMA. He paid a visit to our studio for our weekly Leadership Perspective’s interview to tell us a little bit about what goes into preparing for and recovering from a natural disaster.

Russell told us that work just recently wrapped up on recovery from the April 27 2011 tornadoes, saying, “In December of last year, 2013, we ended our last case file for the victims of April 27th 2011 tornadoes. So you’re talking two years out. Two and a half, three years out and we still have people with unmet needs.

Dealing with those case files is only part of Russell’s job. He and his agency have to maintain a standing volunteer community to respond to the next natural disaster. “We have a strong volunteer agency, or strong volunteer community here. In order to keep those people engaged, we always have to do the exercises and the training, and the things necessary to keep them focused on what our mission is going to be when a disaster occurs,” he said.

And that, according to Russell, is his primary responsibility. “Our main job is to do the planning. Our job is to get the community ready to respond to a disaster. Preparedness is our goal.”

Russell says his organization is the final line of defense against natural disasters. “Everybody should be prepared. It starts at home. It doesn’t start with the government, it starts with the individual to make their preparedness plans for themselves and their family, and we can help to make sure the community is more prepared as a whole to face that disaster. We do the coordination of resources when that happens. I tell the fire chiefs and the police chiefs, if they need a porta-potty at two o’clock in the morning, I’m the guy to call. We can do those types of things. If the disaster grows beyond the capability that we have here locally, then we need resources outside of our community, that’s one of the main functions of Emergency Management is to get those resources, either from the state or from the federal government.”

But Russell and his team are ready to spring into action the moment severe weather strikes. In the case of the April 27 2011 tornadoes, the Madison County EMA was ready days in advance.

“Well, let’s take the April 27 tornado outbreak for example. That happened on a Wednesday. On the Friday before, the weather service was telling us, there’s a possibility of a severe event happening next week. As we got closer, the severity of the event became clearer and clearer. And starting Monday, we were having briefings with all the responders, and the schools, the hospitals, the Arsenal.”

When the storms did strike, agencies all over north Alabama were able to come together and make decisions as one unit.

“In the EOC…the Emergency Operations Center. That’s the war room for battle if you will. We were all hearing the same thing. The schools were making the decisions together, county and cities on when to let the schools out. The Arsenal was talking about, if they had to close, how they were going to do it. If we do close businesses and schools, how do we do it so the traffic isn’t at the same time, we have to stagger those out. So those are the kinds of plans, everybody getting together, we could make those plans at one place. Up to the storms actually coming, we started at three in the morning. We knew we were going to have a significant event. We staffed The Emergency Operations Center. There were storms in the state, we were hearing damage reports. So we were passing that information along, making sure people understood that it was severe and that we were going to have damage. So when it actually happened, the responders were sitting on go, ready to go. And I think lives were actually saved because of that preparedness that we had.”

That kind of communication and unity was almost impossible until recently. For instance, the different sheriff’s departments in north Alabama couldn’t communicate because they all used different radio frequencies. That problem in particular has been solved, thanks to new technology.

“We have a county wide communication system now, and it’s expandable as time goes by. If other counties want to add on and use that same system, it’s adaptable. So at some point, we could maybe at some point have a north Alabama wide communications system, where everybody is talking on the same, or able to talk to each other. The streamlining of those communications has really helped us a lot.”

New technology has changed more than just the way agencies communicate, however. “Another thing that’s happened over the past few years, the technology upgrades to where I could have a responder in the field actually putting information into a computer, and we’re receiving that information into the Operations Center. In the old days, it was a phone call. Somebody has to stop what they’re doing and take the call. So that’s two people on the phone. Now you just have one person on a keyboard, and that information still flows to where it needs to go.”

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