Atlanta’s Second Burning
Not since General Sherman of the Union Army in 1864 has the City of Atlanta, Ga., been exposed to such devastation.
This time, however, it was different. This time, neither the fires, the floods, the bombings nor the myriad other disasters lessened the preparedness of those city officials sworn to protect the citizens. This time we were ready.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, under the leadership of Louis O. Giuffrida, used the City of Atlanta and Fulton County, to test its newest initiative— the Emergency Management Course. The course is a training program designed to focus on three specific management concerns in time of major emergencies: policy decision-making, coordination of resources and emergency operations.
For the past three years, Atlanta and Fulton County have been conducting quarterly exercises to test and improve their emergency disaster operations plan, and were fully prepared to move forward into a highly advanced condition of emergency preparedness. In recognition of this emergency preparedness status, plus a demonstrated interest, FEMA offered the opportunity to pilot its new course geared toward metropolitan areas.
Groundwork for the EMC program was done several months prior to the actual exercise. Atlanta-Fulton County reviewed, updated and reviewed again its emergency programs. The FEMA staff too was involved in advanced planning.
Headed by Andrew Casper, retired chief of the San Francisco Fire Department, the FEMA staff made several visits to Atlanta-Fulton County, familiarizing themselves with the government’s organizational structure as well as the area’s physical layout. The city/county was studied in detail to make the EMC simulated disasters as realistic as possible.
The Atlanta-Fulton County delegation consisted of 79 government decisionmakers and a representative cross section of local organizations having a primary responsibility during major emergencies or disasters.
The course was a collection of educational presentations using multimedia, lecture and informal study group activities.
The first activity began April 17 with a presentation by Captain Billy Poe of the Louisiana State Police. Poe headed the Livingston, La. incident in which 43 rail cars carrying a variety of toxic and hazardous chemicals derailed in 1982. With vivid slides and tapes of the disaster, the presentation was a primer for the day to follow.
As the Atlanta-Fulton County contingent was being addressed by a variety of instructors on a wide range of emergencyrelated topics, the anxiety level was made even more realistic through the use of closed circuit television newscasts and press releases detailing a buildup of potentially dangerous circumstances. With the stress finally peaking on Wednesday morning the exercise began.
The FEMA staff had prepared a total of 73 scenarios presented through an exercise control room to the operation room. The operations room consisted of fire and police dispatchers as well as personnel who, in real situations, would be stationed at the various communication centers making decisions based on information received from the field where things were actually happening.
As the exercise unfolded, an amusement park in the neighboring county requested assistance to evacuate people trapped on overhead cable cars. The mutual-aid plans were initiated without incident. But twist after twist was thrown at the operations room. A major fire in Fulton County required the return of the equipment they had prepared to loan the neighboring county. A bomb was located in a downtown high-rise. The problems were complicated by the fact that severe weather in the area was causing flooding throughout the city and county.
Although none of the incidents by themselves would cause alarm to the group, the relentless presentation of disasters, large and small, by the control room severely taxed personnel, equipment and procedures. For over five hours, participants used every aspect of the Atlanta-Fulton County emergency disaster operations plan.
The values of the course were cited by all participants during a critique after the exercise. One of the greatest benefits was the interaction, made possible only by the bringing together of participants from all areas of emergency response. The sacrifice that was made by pulling the top city and county government people, as well as the heads of various departments and organizations from their responsibilities was rewarded by what was gained— friendships were made and bridges were built.
Other benefits included the evaluation of procedures in a controlled yet stressful environment. In addition, the exercise provided answers to many “What if. . .?” questions.