On Thursday afternoon, while the rest of Blount County headed home to snuggle under a blanket and watch the snow fall, two men were located in a corner of the Blount County Courthouse working double time. During the first major winter event of the season, Blount County EMA director Max Armstrong and Blount Count EMA deputy director Doug Smith, were busy answering phone calls, tracking the storm, and following any phone calls made to 911.
“We’re getting any information we can find anywhere,” Armstrong said.
Gateways to information are endless in the EMA Operations Center.
An Emergency Management Incident Tracking System (EMITS) is available on one computer in the office. EMITS Live is managed by the state EMA and is any county EMA’s method of asking the state for help, if needed. If the state EMA can’t help then they will contact FEMA.
On another computer is the National Weather Service Chat. EMAs, public safety officials, media outlets, weather spotters, and amateur radio operators can log into the chat and update others what is going on in their town. This also allows Armstrong and Smith to keep an eye on what is headed Blount County’s way.
Other forms of information include multiple SkyCams on one television screen, a local news station playing on another, and a constantly monitored and updated radar system. EMA Duties
It is essential the EMA Operations Center have these numerous information sources. They monitor all potential disasters so they can inform any local official of the possible impending danger, and they assist local government in a plan of action by remaining up-to-date on what is happening in this county.
The 911 Center does these mandatory duties on a day-to-day basis, but during disasters, EMA will communicate with leaders in the field. For example, if the fire department is called out to remove a tree blocking a road and they are in need of a backhoe because the tree is too large to remove with a chainsaw, they will call Armstrong to supply them with that equipment.
They are also the main source of information for officials who decide to close down their facilities. Probate Judge Chris Green, who decides when to close down the courthouse, stops by throughout the storm gathering information from Armstrong. After seeing the intensity of the storm, Green decides to shut down the courthouse.
Blount County Supt. Jim Carr and Oneonta Supt. Scott Coefield had already been in touch with Armstrong the day before the storm made its way into the state. The superintendents make the final decision on how to proceed with school closing, but Armstrong and Smith are the ones who supply them with the information necessary to make those decisions.
Before the storm begins picking up momentum, Armstrong and Smith are preoccupied with answering phone calls. The most popular question – “Are there any roads closed?” – is almost always followed up by this answer –“No, there are some roads that are impassable, but we don’t close roads.”
Armstrong says Blount County EMA follows state standards by not closing roads. To close a road, a police officer must be at that location not allowing people through. Blount County doesn’t have the manpower to accomplish that, according to Armstrong. Therefore, roads are deemed impassable rather than completely shut down.
Oneonta assistant fire chief Brandon Horton also stops by the office for information on what the storm is capable of. The conversation turns to road maintenance during storms and Horton explains how Oneonta deals with road conditions during a winter storm.
“There are predesignated roads, including in front of the hospital and by the fire station, that are sprayed with a salt solution the city bought last year,” he said. “We used sand before, but if just covers the snow and they have to continually recover it, but we don’t have to do that with the salt solution.” 911 calls
The up-to-the-minute Blount County 911 calls that continually pop up on a screen in the office show every call made whether that be someone locking their keys in their car, a medical emergency, or a vehicle accident. Around noon, before the snow had picked up, not many calls were coming in.
“Maybe this weather is keeping things quiet,” Armstrong said. “People have already bought their milk and are staying in the house. The screen will fill up when the wrecks start, but let’s hope that doesn’t happen.”
For a while, it doesn’t. The screen remains empty except for a few medical calls and a couple of stray dogs that need to be caught. But then, when the storm is at its most extreme, the calls begin to come in.
It begins with trees down on roadways. Armstrong realizes this could have been predicted because of the massive amount of rain that had fallen in the days before making the ground soft, and with the 30-mph winds the trees were easily knocked over.
Then, one by one, the accident calls begin to pile up on the 911 screen. Most have simply slid off the road into an embankment.
However, the wrecks didn’t stop once the snow did. In total there were 18 wrecks on Thursday, and 29 accidents on The snow stops
Armstrong, who began working at Blount County EMA in 1992, says during certain natural disasters he has stayed consecutive nights in the EMA Operations Center. During this storm he remained in the office until the snow stopped, only to return later that night to recheck all the current information. The next morning, Armstrong returned to the office at 6 o’clock.
The final snow total measured by Armstrong at the Blount County Courthouse was 1.5 inches, but at his house on Pine Mountain he measured 2.8 inches.