They are the people the rest of us call on when things go wrong. Things ranging from a medical emergency, to a car wreck, to a tornado that has ripped apart the neighborhood. They are local emergency management agencies, and they have to have a plan for just about any emergency.
Representatives from more than 20 EMAs converged on the Wilson Emergency Management Agency training facility Thursday to compare notes and learn what is new in the profession. The meeting included Chris Johnson, director of the Middle Tennessee Region of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.
"These meetings help local EMA directors learn about new things in the field – new ideas, new laws and new training standards," Johnson said. "A lot of it is just tweaks of old rules."
WEMA Director John Jewell and his team were the hosts for the day. He said Johnson usually rotates the meetings.
"Wilson County fits good for us," Johnson said. "It's centrally located here off I-40. This is a good place, and [Jewell] does a good job here."
Jewell said the regional meetings are a good resource for EMA agencies.
"We can discuss what other agencies do, and it allows us to do professional networking," Jewell said. "It also increases our resources and helps us know who to call if we need help from another county."
Jewell said with the legendary destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina and, more recently by Superstorm Sandy, more people are realizing just how invaluable their EMAs are.
"Emergency management is becoming more sophisticated," he said. "As time goes on there is a greater push for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, TEMA and local agencies to all communicate and work together."
Jewell said the job of EMAs is only becoming more complicated as the world becomes more complicated.
"When our infrastructure is damaged it damages our modern lifestyles which rotate around it," he said, adding that everyone takes things like instant electricity for granted until it is not at their fingertips. "There are two places everyone should visit - a steam plant with all it's deafening noise as it produces electricity, and the generator room of a dam where the very floor vibrates producing the power it takes to make the lights burn."
The duties of an EMA on every level are wide-ranging.
"Our responsibilities are very broad," Jewell said. "They range from simple medical calls, car accidents and fires to a failure of basic services. It can be very overwhelming."
Johnson said the best thing for people to remember is what they learned in Boy Scouts - be prepared, and be prepared to take care of yourself if need be.
"Everyone needs an emergency supply kit," he said. "It should include a battery operated radio, a flashlight, bottled water and an emergency food supply. The more prepared you are the better."
Jewell said a lot of people let their preparations lapse as time goes on and tend to become complacent. People also take their modern lifestyles for granted.
"We've become so dependent on electric power that we are tied to it," Jewell said, noting Sandy highlighted that fuel cannot be pumped without electricity. "Without fuel vehicles don't run and we're paralyzed. This also affects the food supply. We no longer go out to the woods to hunt for food, we hunt at the grocery store. Without fuel and vehicles, the food supply is affected."
Federal, state and local EMAs are on the frontline when it comes to dealing with these situations.
"We work on how to supply food, water and housing and we train people to do these things," Johnson said.
Jewell said WEMA is happy to work with the TEMA to make sure everyone is on the same page.
"TEMA is a good, strong agency," he said.
EMAs at every level came to the fore following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks when the work of EMAs in New York City and Washington were put to the test. But Johnson said when it comes to disasters, EMAs have the same role regardless of whether they are caused by terrorists or by the weather.
"We plan for all threats," he said. "If it is a terrorist attack, then law enforcement works on the crime aspect, but it makes little difference to us, we focus on the ESF (Emergency Support Functions).
There are 16 ESFs, among them are transportation; communications; public works and engineering; firefighting; emergency management; mass care and housing; urban search and rescue; oil and hazardous materials response; agriculture and natural resources; energy; public safety and security; long-term community recovery; and external affairs.
"The bottom line is life safety, that's what is No. 1," Johnson said.
Jewell said emergency management isn't about taking charge of a disaster situation.
"EMAs don't see ourselves as taking charge, we facilitate," he said. "We glue people together.
He explained EMAs help coordinate and pass on information about search and rescue, power, roads and public works. They can even help facilitate the removal of debris, animal welfare and help with the damage assessments that can help get an area declared a disaster area in order for victims to get low interest loans from the government.
Jewell said EMAs are not about making decisions during a crisis as much as making sure the people who can make decisions, like representatives of the power company or law enforcement officers, are in communication with one another.
"We get those people who need to make the decisions together as part of a group, face to face," he said. "We try to get everyone on the same page."
Staff writer Mary Hinds may be reached at 615444-3952, ext. 45 or firstname.lastname@example.org.