Why responders should join a state incident management team
A firefighter relates her experiences responding to Hurricane Michael in southwest Georgia
By Michele Ice, contributor, In Public Safety
Hurricane Michael swept through southwest Georgia, bringing sustained winds of up to 115 mph with gusts of up to 150 mph. The historic Category 3 hurricane brought absolute devastation to Seminole County, shocking residents because there had never been a hurricane of such magnitude in the area.
There was one reported fatality. An 11-year-old girl was killed when the wind picked up a mobile carport, which crashed through the roof of her grandparents’ house.
Southwest Georgia lost all power and utilities, and approximately 90 percent of homes and businesses were damaged from the hurricane. There was a total loss of critical infrastructure and communication resources in the area and the loss of electricity left most residents who had pump wells without water.
Local public safety officials were overwhelmed by the devastation. Not only were their own homes and businesses damaged, but they were also simultaneously trying to respond to record-breaking volumes of 911 calls. The county has limited emergency responders – mostly volunteer firefighters, a handful of 911 dispatchers and fewer than a dozen law enforcement officers who were trying to handle all these emergency calls in this large county.
There was a great need for public safety assistance. The state’s emergency operation center requested assistance and resources. The governor and President Trump immediately declared a federal disaster area and dispatched much-needed personnel and resources.
Deployment of state incident management response teams
The Georgia Emergency Management Type III Incident Management Team was promptly deployed. This team is one of Georgia’s All-Hazards Incident Management Teams (AHIMTs), a state resource authorized through the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency (GEMA/HS) and governed by a committee comprised of the Georgia Fire Academy and the Georgia Forestry Commission.
AHIMTs are dispatched when conditions exceed local asset capabilities. They provide consequence management assistance to local first responders during the initial hours of a critical incident or until the arrival of state and federal assistance. AHIMTs can operate on behalf of local responders who are either absent or when conditions exceed their capabilities.
As a firefighter with Cobb County, Georgia, Fire and Emergency Services, I have been assigned to the Georgia Incident Management Response team since 2009. I am a single-resource specialist acting as a communications unit leader.
My responsibilities include providing vital emergency communication assets including 911 communications, radio frequency repeaters, wireless networks, cell phone towers and other interoperability communications capabilities among local, county, state and federal assets. Other members of the Georgia Incident Management Response Team include emergency management directors, firefighters, forestry personnel, law enforcement officials, utilities supervisors and liaison personnel with the state emergency management agency.
On Oct. 14, 2018, the team was asked to respond for at least a five-to-seven day deployment.
Making do when responding to a disaster
Each team member brings his or her own “go kit,” which includes self-sustaining equipment and supplies for at least five days. This kit ensures that a responder’s arrival does not further tax the resources of the local community. My kit included the following:
- Laptop computer
- Cell-phone chargers with solar batteries
- Printer and printer paper
- Large paper state and county maps
- Highlighters, pens, notepads
- Sleeping bag
- Meals ready to eat (MREs)
- Other necessities
Deploying to a disaster zone also requires responders to make do with limited accommodations and resources. That means sleeping wherever they can and eating whatever is available.
After my second day of deployment, I found housing at the local fire station. The only available place to sleep was in a small weight room on an old mattress. More than 35 firefighters from Georgia Forestry were staying in the firehouse bays where the trucks were usually parked. The first couple of days, the Georgia National Guard gave us MREs and cases of bottled water.
Our workdays were 15 to 16 hours long with at least five to six hours of downtime. Even though we were exhausted when we returned to the fire station, we found time to decompress by playing card games (UNO was our favorite). Often, we sat around and talked about what we saw that day.
It was challenging to complete my assignments to provide communication infrastructure. Fortunately, generators brought in from Florida and other areas in Georgia provided electricity, so we could establish a temporary command post, a 911 center and other vital utilities for first responders.
However, these generators used large amounts of fuel, which proved to be a logistical nightmare. At one point, the 911 center generator overheated and there was no 911 capability for more than four hours. Luckily, this happened overnight when most people were sleeping.
We also were given a large generator by the Georgia Forestry Agency, which we used to establish communications for all the local, state and federal resources. To further support communication efforts, our team erected temporary radio antenna towers throughout southern Georgia.
Why all responders should consider volunteering for an incident management team
Following my seven-day deployment responding to Hurricane Michael and my near decade as a member of an incident management team, I strongly urge other responders to get involved. Being part of an incident management team provides not only valuable training and educational opportunities; it is incredibly rewarding by helping residents during desperate times.
It’s also an excellent opportunity to meet responders from other areas. The bond we formed during those crucial days will last a lifetime. I regularly hear from some of the other emergency responders. Even though we hadn’t met before this disaster, we are now emergency responder families for life.
It’s reassuring to know that when my department or jurisdiction experiences a disaster or emergency that is larger than we can handle, there are highly qualified and professional teams at the ready to assist us.
As a firefighter for more than 26 years, I have found that helping others actually helps me. As a first responder, we witness tragedy and horrific scenes. However, we get to see how resilient people are and how they can pull together in the worst of times to help one another persevere.
Being part of an incident management response team affords you the opportunity to help others on a local, state, and federal level. Although I plan to retire from the fire service in the coming year, I plan to continue working for this awesome incident management team. Helping others is my lifelong calling.
About the author
Michele Ice has been a firefighter for more than 26 years with Cobb County (GA) Fire and Emergency Services. She is currently assigned as Firefighter II at Truck Company 13 in West Cobb. Michele is also a CPR/First Aid Instructor, Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Instructor, Child Safety Seat Technician Instructor, Hazardous Materials Technician, Firefighter Cancer Support Network State Director, Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) state team member, Fire Explorer Advisor, and on the GEMA Incident Management Type III Team. She is a wife and mother of two. Both her husband and daughter are also career firefighters with Cherokee County (GA) Fire and EMS and her son is a fire explorer. To contact the author, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. To receive more articles like this in your inbox, please sign up for In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.
This article, originally published in December 2018, has been updated.