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Homeland security official addresses Rotarians

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Members of the Clayton County Rotary Club got a glimpse of all the actions, and partnerships involved in keeping the people of Georgia safe, on Wednesday, during a presentation from the second-in-command of the state's Department of Homeland Security.

Gary Kelley, the deputy director of the Georgia Department of Homeland Security, addressed the county's Rotarians, during their weekly meeting, about what the department does. Kelley, who became the department's deputy director in 2007, summed up its work as overseeing emergency response efforts around the state, through partnerships with local agencies.

"The purpose of the Department of Homeland Security is to protect life and property, and to reduce the negative impacts of natural disasters, and man-made disasters," he said.

At a time when terrorist alerts have been issued in Europe, and coming just over a year after floods and tornados did damage to parts of the metropolitan Atlanta area, Kelley's presentation allowed local Rotarians to understand how the state mobilizes its resources to handle disasters.

He said the department was formed in 2007, when Gov. Sonny Perdue merged the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), with the state's Office of Homeland Security. "Gov. Perdue merged GEMA, and the Office of Homeland Security, because their functions are very similar," he said.

Both still exist under the department's name, he said, and GEMA is still referred to in the department's mission statement. He explained that partnerships, with a wide range of organizations and agencies, are important in the department's efforts to fulfill its mission. Those partnerships allow the department to mobilize the resources it needs in times of an emergency.

He said the department oversees emergency responses to disasters, from its State Operations Center, in Atlanta. He added, however, that the state is split into eight regions, under GEMA. Each region has a field director, he said, who is responsible for developing partnerships with local law enforcement, emergency management agencies and public health agencies, in preparation for an emergency.

"That way, when things happen in a particular region, we already have those relationships in place to handle the situation," Kelley said.

Clayton County is part of Region 7, which also includes Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, and Rockdale counties, according to the department's web site, http://www.gema.ga.gov/.

He added that the homeland security side of the department is tasked with making sure every region has the necessary funding to have various types of response teams, including hazardous materials teams, bomb squads, and search-and-rescue teams.

Kelley addressed terrorism issues, in light of the terrorist alerts currently in place in Europe. He said a growing area of concern for emergency response officials, in the U.S., is online recruitment of American citizens, by terrorist groups, such as al-Qaida.

He encouraged the Rotarians to take notice of suspicious activities. "If you see anything suspicious in your neighborhood, in your workplace, or in your community, in places like the playground, or at sporting events," he said. "Say something to your local law enforcement."

Clayton County Rotary Club President Gid Rowell said it was good to have Kelley speak to the club, to let the Rotarians know what happens with public safety. "It's probably something a lot of people probably don't think that much about, but it gives a sense of security, knowing that the state has knowledgeable people in place to handle emergencies," Rowell said.

Cathy Ratti, the club's program coordinator, said she picked Kelley as a speaker because she thought members would enjoy hearing about the Department of Homeland Security from someone with local ties. Prior to taking his current position with the state, he spent 18 years as an investigator in the Clayton County District Attorney's office, she said.

She added that he worked for the Clayton County Police Department before that.

Rotary Club Sergeant-At-Arms, Yvonne Holmes, said she enjoyed Kelley's presentation, but she had no idea the department relied on partnerships with local agencies to perform its work. "You only think about the fire department, and the police department, and you really don't think about everything that is involved in responding to disasters," she said.