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Henry, Clayton 911 centers
strive to stay ahead of storms

By Jason A. Smith

jsmith@henryherald.com

Emergency-management personnel in Henry and Clayton counties are preparing for the next wave of the hurricane season, and working to make sure residents are ready for storms in the future.

As of Friday, Hurricanes Hanna and Ike were continuing to cut a path toward the southeastern U.S., bringing the possibility of heavy rains and wind with them.

Henry County Emergency Management Director Don Ash said his department was forced to adopt a "wait and see" outlook regarding the impact of the storms, until they reach the southeastern coast. "The system won't affect us until Tuesday or Wednesday," he said. "We're monitoring the [storms'] path to see if we will be affected by evacuees arriving here."

Ash said he is also mindful of a "secondary effect" of the storms, in the form of tornadoes, which often "spin off" from hurricanes.

Henry County is not a stranger to such events causing damage within its borders. In 2005, tornadoes accompanying Tropical Storm Cindy hit the county, causing what Ash called "significant damage" to Atlanta Motor Speedway and the eastern portion of the county.

The EMA director said although the storms wreaked havoc in those areas, positive effects continue in the county as a result of the lessons learned by county officials. "I think that incident really helped us to increase our participation in programs like the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT)," he said. "We recognize the need to have additional warning sirens throughout our county, and we continue to focus on avenues that would provide funding in our hazardous-mitigation plan that we just got approved. That was our No. 1 priority - early warnings."

To further those efforts, Ash and his staff last week held a series of events, during Severe Weather Week in Henry County. About 20 CERT members in Henry participated in a storm-spotter class taught by a warning coordination meteorologist and a forecaster from the National Weather Service.

During the month of September, Ash plans to expand the message of readiness as part of Emergency Preparedness Month in Henry. This week is "Ready Henry" week, which will focus on informing residents how they can become involved in creating a storm-ready community.

Sept. 14-20 is "Make a Kit, Make a Plan" week, which Ash said has a full slate of scheduled activities. "We're going to teach cub scouts and go into senior centers, to make sure people know the important things to have in their kit, [including] their medical information."

He added that his department is "reaching out" to faith-based groups and other entities, to further education efforts in Henry regarding emergencies. "At some point this month, we will be working with Stockbridge High School's public-safety program," he continued. "We'll be doing simulations in our Emergency Management Center... and we'll do some educational [presentations] in the classroom as well."

While Ash works to prepare the public for future storms, employees at the county's 911 center are maintaining a watchful eye on weather conditions in the area.

Michelle Felix is a day-watch supervisor for the center. She said the facility's employees are constantly monitoring a number of outlets in an effort to ensure the county's preparation. "[We are looking at] anything that's heading our way or could affect us in any way," said Felix, who has worked at the facility for more than seven years. "We ... depend on the [National] Weather Service and the Weather Channel, and we have a weather-bug program and several [other] different ways of keeping up with it."

Center personnel, she noted, also monitor all fire and police calls in the county, while receiving updates on severe weather. "Anytime there's a watch or a warning, we let our officers and firemen know," said Felix. "We have to be mindful of everything all the time."

No special events are planned in Clayton County this month regarding emergency readiness, according to Maj. Tom Israel, head of the area's 911 center.

However, he said staying ahead of the storms is an ongoing effort. "It's Emergency Preparedness Month every month around here," said Israel, who also serves as commander of Clayton County Police Department's communications division. "We rely heavily on emergency management to provide us with weather information. We have TVs in our center, and one is always set on the Weather Channel."

Israel said in the event of severe weather, the center's 50 employees know they could be summoned at any time to assist with calls. "The division is set up so that if we can't leave, we have a full kitchen and break room for naps," Israel added. "We can be settled in for a while. No matter how bad it gets, the 911 center has to remain in operation."

Israel said his department, which handles all fire, police, code enforcement, animal control and 911 calls in Clayton, has averaged approximately 57,000 calls a month so far this year. He added that the agency has received about 25,000 calls more this year than when the last tally was taken in August of 2007.