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GEMA/HS’s Role in Disaster

March 12, 2015
Car covered in snow driving on a snowy road

What was once a nuclear war fallout shelter is now the hub of disaster response activities for Georgia.

Located in the basement of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency/Homeland Security (GEMA/HS), the State Operations Center (SOC) boasts 2-feet thick concrete walls, a water well, generators with a 30-day supply of fuel and even a granite blast wall to protect workers from a nearby explosion.

When an emergency or disaster threatens the safety of Georgians, GEMA/HS brings together dozens of state and federal agencies, non-profit organizations and private sector companies. They come to this space to coordinate the state’s preparedness and response efforts under the leadership of Director Jim Butterworth. Staffing can scale up or down depending on the event.

We’re an Agency Liaison

GEMA/HS is not a first-response agency. Instead, we’re the liaison between local and state agencies that need resources for disaster response and recovery activities. When the SOC moves from active monitoring status to an elevated level of activation, GEMA/HS action officers begin taking requests for assistance from local emergency management agencies. Commonly requested items for a winter weather event include cots for shelters and road salt. These requests are relayed to the state agencies responsible for filling them, according to the Georgia Emergency Operations Plan.

For winter weather emergencies, personnel from about a dozen state and federal agencies and the American Red Cross gather in this windowless space with an obvious sense of mission. All eyes are on the weather radar playing across a big screen at the front of the room. Another large screen shows the location of all state assets, which are being tracked using geographic information system technology.

Typical Day during a Winter Emergency

Here’s a typical scene at the SOC during a winter weather emergency. In one breakout room, staff from the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) pour over road sensor data and work with Georgia State Patrol to arrange for troopers to escort GDOT trucks through Atlanta. At the other end of the room, rangers from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources are calling in additional staff for strike teams that patrol metro Atlanta interstates in a winter weather event to help stranded motorists and keep travel lanes clear.

Next door, staff from the Georgia Department of Human Services and the American Red Cross are helping counties open shelters. Meanwhile, Georgia Forestry Commission rangers are coordinating chainsaw crews to remove ice-covered trees that have fallen and blocked roadways, while a representative from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority eyes power outages.

The operation runs around the clock and the pressure is relentless. There are weather briefings, planning meetings and operations coordination calls to assess life and safety needs.

Just before the 7 p.m. shift change, the wife and daughter of a state trooper deliver 200 homemade cupcakes. People dig in as the day shift briefs out, enjoying a morale boost and sugar rush that will sustain them for the next 12 hours.

As you can see, this is definitely a team effort.

Visit our website for the latest information on GEMA/HS and disaster response activities. For more information on how to prepare for severe weather, visit our Ready Georgia campaign at www.ready.ga.gov or download Ready Georgia’s free mobile app. Be sure to follow GEMA/HS on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

About the Author

Lisa Janak Newman has been a public affairs officer for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency/Homeland Security (GEMA/HS) for over 10 years, where she disseminates emergency information before, during and after natural and man-made disasters and national security events. She supports all levels of government during local emergencies and widespread disasters. Janak Newman also is project manager for Ready Georgia, a public relations campaign that motivates citizens to be prepared for an emergency by creating a disaster supplies kit, developing a family disaster plan and staying informed about the disasters that may impact them.

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