EMA Director discusses hostage drill

By Lesley Hughes
star staff
lhughes@starhq.com

  Ernest Jackson officially returned to his duties as director of the Elizabethton/Carter County Emergency Management Agency on Thursday morning after being suspended for almost a month and a half while state authorities investigated a security drill he conducted on Aug. 2.
  During the drill, armed hostages took control of the Carter County Commission meeting. The drill caused controversy between county commissioners who were unaware it would take place and others at the meeting who argued that not notifying the public portrayed a hostage or terrorist situation that was too realistic.
  Thursday was the first day Jackson spoke to media about the exercise. He first thanked his wife, Kathy, co-worker Renee Bowers, and the citizens of Carter County for the support he received through phone calls and letters.
  "It is time for me to have a little bit of a say on the event that happened on Aug. 2, the hostage terrorist exercise. I promised Mayor Fair to refer all media questions to him until the investigation was complete or until a public decision had been made on the status of my job. I have been backed into a corner over this period of time and I am going to come out fighting," Jackson said.
  He said a few citizens were responsible for spreading false information about the EMA office and himself and he wanted to report the truth.
  "Over the last couple of weeks I have been sick and tired of hearing my name and the name of this office dragged through the mud by a few people, and they know who they are, that has been pointing fingers at this office. I have chosen instead to put the truth out there. The truth will be standing long after all the lies have fallen. Those who have lied know that they lied and there are certain ones who left out certain details and so forth they are wrong as well," he said.
  If he has wronged Carter Countians, Jackson said, it is only because he was motivated by concern.
  "If I am guilty of one thing in this whole situation it is caring too much for the people of Carter County. And if that is a crime then I am guilty as charged. I care for each citizen whether I know him or her personally in our county. I would not have accepted to be the director of the EMA last September if I had not cared about the people of Carter County," he said.
  His major mistake in the drill conducted on Aug. 2 occurred when he failed to notify County Mayor Dale Fair prior to the event, he said.
   "I make no lengthy apologies concerning the exercise that we attempted except for one major fact - that I didn't inform County Mayor Dale Fair first. Mayor Fair has been the only elected official to tell me personally that he was concerned about the audience members during that time of unease. I thank God that we had a few calm heads that were concerned not only about themselves but about others during that time on Monday evening. Not everyone acted inappropriate that Monday night and I salute and praise those efforts," Jackson said.
   "This one drill will be remembered in the history of Carter County as the day that our little part of the universe changed. This event has pushed our county together. Whether or not we like it our country is at war, both on the home and on the foreign fronts. I will not be guilty of giving aid and comfort to the enemy by cowering down to anyone."
  One benefit from the mock drill, according to Jackson, is that it caused citizens to consider the possibility of a real terrorist situation occurring in this small town.
  "One thing the exercise did is that it got us thinking. What if this had been real? If this had been real we would have had a whole lot of dead bodies," he said.
  Some critics accused Jackson of not informing law enforcement officials enough. "If one law enforcement officer - sheriff, constable, investigator or deputy - had said to me or Mrs. Bowers not to go through with the drill we would have got our actors together and called the whole thing off. It would have stopped before it had a chance to start," he said.
  Jackson said that he notified Sheriff John Henson, three members of the County Commission who are law enforcement officers, as well as off duty officers who were in the audience of the drill. He also said county constables had been informed of the plan and were asked not to draw their weapons. "A fire drill was never mentioned in that conversation," he said. The local 9-1-1 Communications Center were also informed.
  Jackson said drills will continue to be conducted in the county according to rules he has been given due to important lessons emergency responders can learn from them and in order to receive federal funding.