Every year, potentially extreme storm systems threaten the Atlanta area, and every year, recently at least, the threat mostly avoids Fayette County.
But what happens when a weather system makes good on its threat? Will Fayette County be ready?
Fayette County Emergency Management Agency Director and Division Chief Pete Nelms says Fayette has for years made a high priority of being prepared for almost any unexpected disaster, but he also says the local, state and federal governments have a glaring gap in their coverage that can’t be properly filled without help from the public. That gap has to do with helping private property owners recover from natural disasters.
According to Nelms, government fire and rescue crews are not allowed to perform disaster relief on private property. So after fires are extinguished and survivors are brought to safety, property owners must rely on combinations of insurance coverage, personal expenditure, their own physical clean-up effort and help from friends, family and volunteers. In many cases, it can be overwhelming and even devastating.
The upside of using volunteers is that the work is done quickly and cheaply, or even freely, depending on the materials and tools needed. But the downside can be that some volunteers, if not properly trained to work in disaster relief situations, may get in the way and may even become counterproductive to recovery efforts.
That’s why Georgia’s Emergency Management Agency has for the last several years encouraged local communities to develop programs through which disaster relief specialists at no charge train volunteers to assist in disaster relief situations. Nelms calls the coalition that was formed locally last year the Fayette County Faith Based Disaster Network.
And while FCFBDN doesn’t spell a cool word, members of FCFBDN are trained to do some pretty cool things, and more importantly they are trained to do things that can make a huge difference at just the right time in the lives of neighbors in need. Nelms says church ministry teams in Fayette County are finding that the training they’re receiving is making them more of a valuable resource to their community than they might have been otherwise.
More free training is coming up soon, and Nelms says the network is in need of as many new volunteers as would like to serve. The network will offer Damage Assessment Training on Sept. 17, Volunteer Management Training on Sept. 24 and Disaster Counselling Training on Oct. 12. Those interested may e-mail Nelms, PeteN@fayettecountyga.gov, or call him, 770-305-5172.
Nelms says around 200 volunteers have already received some training, though some also plan to cross-train so they may also avail themselves to other teams. The full list of teams includes Volunteer Management Team, Debris Cleanup Team, Damage Assessment Team, Points of Dispensing and Distribution Team, Disaster Counseling Team, Shelter Management Team, Communications Team, Donated Goods Team, Animals in Disaster Team and Special Skill Sets Team.
Ten local churches have already joined the network, according to Nelms, who says church membership is not required to join the network. Also, Nelms says even if a church only has one or two members who want to volunteer, those volunteers can be attached to another existing team.
“It’s the faith-based groups that are always ready to serve,” Nelms said. If we have an event here, this will pay dividends.”
One of those involved congregations is Fayetteville First Baptist Church, and one of their involved congregants is Charley English, who just happens to be the director of Georgia Emergency Management Agency, which spearheads the statewide effort to involve faith-based organizations in disaster relief.
And yes, English is linked with the very cool chainsaw team.
English says he was “delighted but not surprised” when he learned that Fayette County was stepping up to form its own disaster relief network of faith-based organizations. “Fayette County really leads the pack in a lot of ways with emergency preparedness,” he said, commending the work of Nelms and his colleagues.
English says Fayette will be even better served when more organizations join the network.
Regarding responding to disasters, English said, “The government is a part of the solution, but really the government isn’t even the better part of it.” He said volunteers take the effort where the government can’t go. He, too, referred to the fact that government disaster recovery crews are not allowed to go onto private property.
English says there are a couple of less obvious reasons why locals need to plan ahead to be able to serve their own communities in times of need. For one, he says it is only a matter of time before Fayette County gets its turn to be hit by a significant natural disaster. Secondly, he says it is only a matter of time before the Federal Emergency Management Agency tightens its purse strings on sending aid to private land owners following disasters.
“FEMA’s threshold for declarations is almost certainly going up,” English said.
English noted that the disaster relief afforded to Adairsville in January couldn’t have happened without help from the public. He said around 600 local and statewide government emergency services personnel responded to the needs in Adairsville, but there were about 2,500 faith-based disaster relief team members on the scene.
“It’s a much more appropriate resource,” English said. “They’re ready to go. Their mission is in the community, anyway, so they’re a very able and willing partner to us.”
English noted that it’s not just chainsaws and garbage bags needed after natural disasters. There’s also food and water and other basis needs that must be provided. And so there is also a catering team.
An added benefit to joining the network, says English, is training for church groups that can also benefit the other ministry outreaches they may have, such as community benevolence. One of the training specialties deals with how to be a good steward of the resources available.
“We want to help the needy, not the greedy,” English said.
English said it is also good to network so that multiple groups aren’t all trying to respond to the same place at the same time if there are also pressing needs somewhere else in the community. “It helps eleviate the duplication of benefits,” he said.
Coming in September, English said churches will be invited to participate in a new promotion called “Praise and Preparedness”.
And while English says there will probably still be storm survivors who fall through the cracks while trying to get help, he says having a larger community network of volunteer responders will help to fill in those gaps.
“It’s a lot more art than science, and the more people you have, the better off you are.”
On the county level, the network is eagerly supported by elected officials as well. Commission Chairman Steve Brown is one of the network’s fans.
“We know our public safety personnel cannot be everywhere when a disaster strikes,” said Brown, “so we are utilizing our faith based community to assist us in community preparedness through education, training, and volunteer service to save more lives and provide comfort to those who are suffering."