Former EMA director talks about storm safety

Published 6:00 pm Tuesday, March 5, 2019

VALLEY — Former Chambers County Emergency Management Director Donnie Smith was the guest speaker at Monday’s meeting of the Valley Lions Club. He talked about the laborious process of getting localized city and county emergency departments merged into a countywide EMA, and more recently, the devastating tornado that cut a mile wide, 24-mile-long path through eastern Lee County on Sunday afternoon, killing 23 people.

“We can’t prevent destruction. All we can do is warn,” Smith said.

When it touched down in the Beauregard community, it was an EF 4 with winds of 170 miles per hour.

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Smith said it’s extremely important to have a NOAA weather radio in your home and to be listening to updates on bad weather days.

“You put your life in jeopardy if you rely on weather sirens,” he said. “Weather sirens are for those who are outside. We have one at Valley Community Center and one near the campgrounds on West Point Lake. Do not rely on them if you’re at home.”

Smith said that NOAA weather radios are ideal.

“The staff at the EMA Center can show you how to program it and how to use the apps on your phone,” he said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with those in Lee County. (Current Director) Jessica Yeager has been in Lee County for the past two days. The Chambers County Sheriff’s Office has had personnel there helping with rescue and recovery.”

Smith has been with Chambers County emergency management since Chambers voters approved going with an enhanced statewide 911 system in 1986.

“If you have the chance, look at a phone book from the early 1980s,” he said. “That book will list a dozen numbers to call in case of emergency. Pages are filled with different numbers to call in case of an emergency. Each part of the county had separate numbers to call depending on the kind of emergency.”

In 1987, Smith was hired to get a countywide 911 system up and running. It was no easy task. “We had to standardize addresses, and there was 20,000 of them,” he said. “We had to work with post offices and go door to door notifying people. We got all kinds of complaints about change, but it’s certainly been worthwhile to have a system where we can locate people quickly.”

Enhanced 911 means that first responders can get to any location in Chambers County much faster than they used to.

The Y2K fear of the late 1990s presented an opportunity to update equipment for Chambers County 911. The next step was to get a new building. Smith said the new center was designed around what the 911 staff does every day. Dispatchers sit behind a bank of monitors, rather than just one.

Smith said that he’s really enjoyed the ride from being where we were in the mid 1980s to being where we are now.

“There have been so many changes in technology,” he said. “I’ve been blessed to have worked for the people of Chambers County. It’s been a joy to have tried to keep things on the cutting edge.”

Emergency dispatch is the ultimate customer service business.

“People who call us aren’t happy,” Smith said. “Something bad has happened, and they are in a desperate, emotional state. We have to understand what’s going on, and what we need to do to help them. We are responsible for our first responders as well. We have to direct them where to go and let them know what to expect when they get there.”

Smith said that he missed the day-to-day operations but knew that Chambers County 911 was in very good hands with the current staff. He said that he wants to keep abreast with the changes going on in the field.

Smith described the 911 center as a building within a building. The administrative side of the 7,400-square-foot building is structured for conventional needs. The dispatcher side is FEMA-rated tornado-proof building. It’s protected with thick concrete and steel. It’s one of the safest places to be in Chambers County, and it has backup power and water if it’s ever needed. The data servers are housed in that area as well.

“We are very proud of that building,” Smith said. “We are very appreciative of the public support that went into it. The bunker can survive an F5, or stronger, tornado. The building has steel doors that are one foot thick.

Smith spent several days in Calhoun County last year when a tornado caused much damage to the Jacksonville area.

“I saw many modular homes,” he said. “Most of them were wrecked. I saw a doublewide that rolled over three times. It had not been tied down. Take the time to do that if you are going to live in such a home.  Get to know your neighbors before the storm hits. If you are going to put a modular home on a piece of property you own, you’ve got to have a septic tank. Why not have a storm shelter, too?”