EMA finds new partners, new methods on emergency readiness

By Thomas Wilson

   While the chance of a terrorist attack in Carter County may seem very remote at best, emergency management officials are taking no chances.
   Federal grants to fund new equipment and a slew of emergency training courses have helped the local emergency management office prepare for an event the public hopes will never happen.
   "Our major threat in this county would probably be Watauga Dam or Wilbur Dam," said Jim Burrough, director of the county's Emergency Management Agency. "Then, we have Nuclear Fuel (Services) in the next county, and we have quite a bit at Eastman in Sullivan County.
   "Our mutual aid agreements would probably be involved in something like that."
   The county also shares a mutual aid response agreement with Mitchell and Avery counties in North Carolina. The county employs mutual emergency aid agreements with each county that borders Carter County as well as Greene County.
   Mutual aid support can cover a variety of needs from public works, fire, law enforcement and highway departments, said Burrough.
   The national Office of Homeland Security stays in contact with all emergency management agencies across the nation. Communication is relayed through the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) for the state and disseminated through each county emergency management agency or office, said Burrough.
   Homeland security efforts also have initiated a stream of federal grants for emergency preparedness at both the state and local level.
   Burrough said the EMA also was anticipating another grant totaling $20,000, to be used for upgrading communication capabilities. Burrough said they were hopefully getting new equipment to make identification badges for the county's Emergency First Responders.
   "We're buying some repeaters, radios and a linking system for the sheriff's department," said Burrough. "There are three repeaters: One on Holston (Mountain), one on Buffalo Mountain, and one on Roan Mountain, so we are buying a linking system to link those repeaters."
   TEMA had received $473,500 for metal detectors (both walk-through and hand-held), HazMat suits, vehicles, equipment and training for local emergency responders through the federal government earlier this year.
   Burrough said a $50,000 homeland security grant Carter County recently received will benefit preparedness in the event of a terrorist attack. The state-awarded grant is part of the Tennessee Domestic Preparedness Program.
   The grant money has been discussed as funding equipment for the police bomb squad as well as medical supplies and protective clothing in the event of a chemical or biological threat.
   "Before the flood of 1998, Carter County didn't have an emergency operations center per se," said Burrough. "We had an office but we didn't have any equipment, but we are in pretty good shape now."
   Burrough said planning for bioterrorism attack response was being done in conjunction with the Tennessee Department of Health (TDOH). Emergency officials were being educated on the detection of hazardous materials and response protocols.
   "That is a big plus because prior to this, emergency management ran off one schedule and the health department ran off another schedule," said Burrough.
   Preparedness for a potential bioterrorism attack did not blip onto the radar screens of some agencies.
   "For quite some time we have been looking at gearing up for something like that to happen," said Shirley Ellis, director of communicable diseases with the state's Department of Health's regional office in Johnson City. "We've been organizing for that type of event prior to 9-11."
   Ellis said smallpox and anthrax were two germs of great concern to health officials nationwide.
   The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta maintains the NPS stockpile throughout the country. Each state has made plans on how to transport and distribute vaccinations.
   "Before the anthrax situation, a lot of folks had communicated about bioterrorism," said Ellis, who will soon join the department's new bioterrorism division to provide her expertise in diseases.
   Children are currently required to receive immunizations against measles, mumps, rubella (scarlet fever), tetanus, diphtheria, chicken pox and whooping cough before entering kindergarten, said Ellis. She said health officials were also pushing to require a Hepatitis B vaccination in the schools.
   Classes ranging from weapons of mass destruction to emergency response planing were plentiful for emergency officials, said Burrough.
   The state office of Homeland Security conducts occasional statewide conference calls with EMAs in each county, said Burrough. The Homeland Security national terrorist alert has dropped below the median "yellow" alert status.
   "There are a lot of things that go on in your counties that used to you didn't pay any attention to but now you do," Burrough noted. "A lot of things that were taken for granted are not taken for granted now."