Tornadoes and other natural disasters occurring in the state of Georgia have tested the preplanning efforts and response capabilities of many of the state’s fire departments and emergency services. In 1986, the Fire and Emergency Services of Cobb County, Georgia, a metropolitan area just north of Atlanta, assumed the responsibility for managing the county’s emergency management agency. Its general objectives were to reduce deaths, injuries, and property damages resulting from natural disasters. Primary emphasis was placed on increasing tornado preparedness and improving response in urban and rural areas. Cobb County Fire and Emergency Services (CFES), which has 505 sworn personnel operating out of 25 stations, services approximately 480,000 citizens.

In 1990, the Cobb County EMS Council was formed. Members of this council include representatives from fire and police departments, hospitals and emergency departments, the 911 center, the Georgia Department of Human Resources, and private ambulance companies. The council is not involved in on-scene emergency response as a group but networks every other month to critique recent incidents and to preplan for future emergencies. From this council, the Cobb County Disaster Plan was developed.


CFES stresses tornado preparedness as much as it does fire prevention. Both are year-round efforts. Information on tornado preparedness is included in fire prevention publications and presentations and is included in utility bills (see sidebar on page 29).

The Cobb County Disaster Plan stresses that the public have its own response plan, just as Fire and Emergency Services does. Residents are encouraged to purchase weather alert radios just as they are to buy smoke detectors. Those living in tornadoprone areas are instructed to make sure they have a tornado evacuation plan and an area of refuge to which to go. Fire departments can obtain tornado information packages from their local or state emergency management agencies or from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Emergency Alerting System

Thirty-eight emergency alert sirens, the locations of which are based on demographics, have been installed in Cobb County. The sirens were acquired for a minimal investment through government surplus systems. Some had to be completely rebuilt: others needed only minor or no repairs.

The poles for the sirens were erected by the Cobb Electrical Membership Corporation; utility costs are about $9.50 per month. The sirens are tested the first Wednesday each month, weather permitting. They can be activated from the Cobb County 911 Center or from CFES headquarters. Personnel at both locations monitor National Weather Service alert radios and television’s Weather Channel.

The sirens are sounded for any of the following reasons:

1. A tornado watch or warning is issued by the National Weather Service for Cobb County.

2. A severe thunderstorm warning is issued by the National Weather Service for Cobb County.

3. A tornado or funnel cloud is reported by a reliable source (fire, police. EMS).

Cobb County is planning to purchase 10 to 15 additional sirens at a projected cost of $8,000 to $9,000 each and also is planning to relocate two sirens, to provide improved coverage. In numerous instances, tornadoes occurred within minutes after the sounding of the sirens; there was no loss of life and only minimal injuries. Also, area residents have told responders that the sirens were their only warning.

Tornado Alert Actions

The 911 Center notifies all fire stations, many of which are at siren locations, of weather emergencies. This association is natural since planning fire station locations involves demographics.

Once alerted, station crews react just as the public has been instructed to do: They seek shelter and tune into emergency broadcast stations.

Should a tornado strike in their response areas, the 911 Center dispatches companies when the “all-clear” is given. Responding units perform “windshield surveys,” informing dispatch of damage and stopping only for extreme or life-threatening emergencies. In the case of downed power lines, a firefighter with a portable radio is posted at the site until the emergency is mitigated.

Cobb County had developed a “SIPS” plan (Simultaneous Incident Plan System) that calls for an initial limited response of one company into a damaged area until the windshield surveys have been completed. This system allows multiple companies to respond to the hardest hit areas.

Testing the System

At 2330 hours on Sunday, June 26, 1994, the alert sirens sounded in Cobb County. Four minutes later, a tornado touched down in west Cobb County. One hundred twentysix homes were damaged or destroyed in an area one and a half to two miles long and a quarter mile wide.

At 0230 hours on Monday, June 27, 1994. a micro burst (an extremely violent downward movement of air current) hit east Cobb County, resulting in minor roof and tree damage to an area five miles long and threequarters of a mile wide.

During these incidents, companies encountered difficulty in accessing areas due to downed trees and power lines and gas leaks. Also, it initially was difficult to determine the actual location and size of the incident due to multiple calls referencing the same general areas.

Lessons Learned

  1. When new areas of development are beginning, work with developers, contractors, and utilities to promote the installation of underground utilities.
  2. Make sure your department has a plan with government and private contractors for road-clearing services.
  3. Constantly work on cultivating a strong working relationship with utility providers.
  4. Frequently update emergency telephone call lists and acquire emergency phone numbers that should be given only to other public safety agencies.
  5. Conduct periodic tabletop training drills.
  6. Contact your local and state EMA for assistance prior to the incident.
  7. During weather emergencies, all agencies must operate within an incident management system that includes a strict personnel accountability system.
  8. Include in your IMS a plan that allows law enforcement to quickly establish incident perimeter control with CAPs (control access points) for additional equipment.
  9. Since severe weather emergencies can affect large areas or geographic regions, it is critical to establish mutual-aid agreements with agencies located outside your general area.
This photo illustrates the amount and size of debris that responding crews may enrounter. Power lines are hanging from trees and lying on the ground. These lines tan be concealed by debris, which could result in serious injury or death for responders. Exercise extreme caution when using power tools in such unstoble environments. And consider all power lines energized!

(Photos by Tom Austin.)

  1. Establish a specific command in each affected area and have dispatch send units to that area’s staging location. The area command can dispatch companies from staging. This can help reduce radio traffic.
  2. During preplanning, contact your local and state EMA to determine what information and/or forms will be required to enable your community to receive maximum state and federal disaster assistance.


Walker County. Georgia, located in the extreme northwest comer of the state, has a mix of rural farm and mountain areas, residential and light industrial areas, and also includes suburbs of Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Three municipal fire departments, I I county fire stations, and two rescue stations are located within the county. The fire departments are a mixture of combination, volunteer, government-funded, and subscription services. Emergency medical service is provided by a full-time, hospitalbased staff.

The Walker County Emergency Management Agency (WEMA) now directs the 911 Center and rescue squads: but beginning January 1, 1995, all fire and rescue services receiving county funding will be under the direction of WEMA.

Considered by many to be state of the art, the Walker County 911 Center is responsible for dispatching and communications for all emergency services in the county. Currently, Walker County has no early warning system, but operators of the 911 Center monitor National Weather Service emergency alert radios. In the near future, a National Weather Service Doppler radar satellite downlink will be installed in the 911 center to improve early warning capabilities.’

When regular avenues of access are blocked, responders must use alternate routes. Use caution: You may encounter power lines in locations that they usually are not found.

The Incident

On the evening of Saturday, March 26, 1694. Walker County public safety agencies were called to respond to emergencies involving flooding in north Walker County. The flooding had not been forecast in local weather reports. The flood emergency involved flash floods on Saturday and Sunday, with additional flooding occurring on Monday and Tuesday, as the waters of the Tennessee River and Chickamauga Creek backed up. Crews evacuated citizens by boat and secured propane gas tanks that had broken loose from their installations and were floating about in flood waters.

At approximately 1200 hours on Sunday, March 27, 1994, Walker County 9ll received a call reporting a funnel cloud in west central Walker County. A Walker County Sheriff’s Department deputy was dispatched to that area but reported no tornado touchdown.

Approximately 30 minutes later, a different Walker County deputy responding to an unrelated emergency reported to 911 a tornado touchdown east of the original funnel cloud sighting. The deputy reported the tornado had touched down west of Highway 27 and was moving east. He did not stop, as SOPs required that the deputy continue on the assigned response.

The Response

Walker 911 dispatched Fort Oglethorpe Fire Department stations 3, 6, and 7: Walker County South Rescue; Walker County Sheriff’s Department; Walker EMA; and three Hutcheson Medical Center EMS units.

First on scene were Sheriff Department units and Walker EMA Director David Ashburn, who reported the following after the primary assessment: Three houses had been destroyed, 13 homes were damaged, one natural gas leak occurred, and one injury occurred within a one-mile area. Responding crews encountered downed trees and power lines. Since a blizzard in 1993 during which responders had difficulty gaining access, the Walker EMA had placed chain saws on all fire and rescue vehicles. Those saws now allowed emergency personnel to quickly make their way through the downed trees.

Units from the Walker County Sheriffs Department and Fort Oglethorpe Fire Department immediately established a perimeter. A command post was established with the Fort Oglethorpe Fire Department assuming command. This allowed WEMA officials to remain in service and respond to other incidents if needed. Primary searches and injury assessments were conducted.

Fortunately, no fatalities and only one injury occurred. Many of the displaced citizens were small children or elderly. The continuing heavy rains and high winds made getting shelter for these people a priority. A local church was opened to provide immediate shelter, and the American Red Cross was brought in to locate temporary housing.

Lessons learned from that blizzard in 1993 facilitated the mitigation of this weather emergency. Preplanning for weather emergencies, for example, included signing contracts with local businesses for the providing of heavy equipment to open roads. In addition, phone numbers for utility agencies were updated. As a result of this preparation, the entire area affected by the storm was opened up, and the incident was declared under control in 1.5 hours.

FEMA estimated damage to public property at $400,000: claims for an additional $500,000 worth of damage to private property were filed with local insurance companies.

Lessons Learned

  1. An early alert siren system would have assisted in warning the public. A siren system is being developed. This, coupled with the Doppler radar satellite downlink, will greatly enhance early warning capabilities.
  2. An emergency power system for the fire stations is being developed so that fire stations can be utilized for immediate shelter.
  3. Radios of all emergency response vehicles should include a common frequency the command staff could use to maintain communications with dispatch. Other on-scene units would be assigned tactical frequencies.


1. The Doppler radar system uses the Doppler effect to measure velocity. The Doppler effect identifies changes in the frequency with which waves (as sound or light) from a given source reach an observer when the source and the observer are in motion with respect to each other so that the frequency increases or decreases according to the speed at which the distance is decreasing or increasing. The system is available from the National Weather Service and is used by media forecasters. It is accessible through a satellite dish; the report is updated every 10 minutes. The receiver can monitor weather systems moving into/through an area.

Weather emergencies can result in large amounts of standing water or water-saturated ground. Remember that electrical current can travel some distance from the source through this electrical conductor. Note the barbedwire fence with electrical lines draped across it; it can conduct electricity to areas remote from the downed lines.Expect severe structural damage. What looks stable during periods of poor visibility may not be stoble at all. The house pictured was moved approximately four feet off its foundation—responders encountered a four-foot gap between the house and the front porch. (Note the sagging steps on the porch.) Debris such as nails, broken glass, and torn metal also can be hazardous to responders.

No posts to display