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Storm troopers
Gwinnett Fire battle-tested from summer storms

LAWRENCEVILLE - Think Sundays are pressure-cookers for pro football players? You're right, they are.

But that's once a week. Try that environment every third day when the stakes are far beyond the superficial.

Consider this scenario: It's twilight on a balmy Tuesday in July and, like an unwanted dinner guest, a surging thunderstorm is knocking on Gwinnett's door. The sky, blue just hours before, looks like the end of days.

When the system finally makes its way in, it seems to park directly over the southern portion of the county amidst rush-hour gridlock.

A single rumble and the elements get nasty all at once. Heavy rain. High winds. And round after round of steel-blue lightning shooting from the heavens.

As many folks settle in for dinner - or traffic - sworn members of the Gwinnett County Department of Fire and Emergency Services, overseeing the largest fire district in the state, put their chow plans on hold. On this particular evening, the department will be pushed to the brink as crews will respond to more than 140 calls in a three-hour span.

While the lightning-tinged deluge randomly picks its marks - house fires, car accidents, downed trees, alarm bells, you name it - top officials hunkered down at the department's emergency operations room are making sure the county's response is anything but haphazard.

From helping the county's 911 center dispatch units to critical calls to backfilling empty stations, these individuals are the quarterback of a large team that cannot afford to lose.

Storms hit small areas, require big effort

Improvise, adapt, overcome.

For the Gwinnett Fire Department, these watchwords are not a cute mission statement. It's the real deal, especially when Mother Nature has taken a swing at Gwinnett.

For a solid month this summer, every shift of Gwinnett Fire - there are three - has had to deal with these odds. From fresh-faced rookies yearning to earn respect on the fireground to seasoned veterans who know all too well how quickly a situation can go downhill, everyone has been tested.

"Storms?" asks a shift commander with a half-smile earned by more than 30 years on the job. "Don't ask me about storms."

It's become a recurring theme: Thunderstorm pummels Gwinnett. Damage amasses. Worries mount. The Fire Department busily files into action.

Yet it isn't so much that the storms have produced unprecedented chaos, according to Deputy Chief David Dusik.

"A lot of time we can have a storm in the metro area and it not even touch Gwinnett County, and then sometimes we have one ... that sits over Gwinnett County and the surrounding areas aren't hit," Dusik says.

When this happens, it's almost like the storm is concentrating on one area, which, in turn, puts the brunt of the work on units countywide.

Here's a snapshot of storm-related damage in a two-week span:

n A felled tree crashed into an apartment building above a bedroom full of children. Several small children were reportedly in the room at the time but were not injured. Officials said the tree fell about 12:17 a.m. at an apartment complex in the 2500 block of Windy Hill Point in Lawrenceville. Firefighters evacuated the six-unit building as a precaution, then went in to assess the damage.

n A residence in the 900 block of Creekview Bluff Way sustained severe fire damage after lightning struck the two-story structure. No injuries were reported. The Red Cross was contacted to assist the displaced occupants.

n A home in the 3100 block of Bugle Drive in Duluth is gutted by fire after being struck by lightning.

n Units from Loganville, DeKalb and Hall counties provided mutual aid to unmanned Gwinnett stations.

n Storms knocked out power to the Post's production facility, causing a printing delay and glitch in computer systems. Power was restored around 4 a.m., and carriers were on the streets three hours later.

The War Room

The storms' ferocity has prompted the department to activate its emergency operations plan nine times over the summer. Its intent is simple: Cut down on radio traffic through written protocols so that each crew knows its role in a larger context. More importantly, it limits resources that traditionally respond to a call - five or six - to only two or three trucks, allowing more units to respond to other incidents.

When the EOP is in effect, top officials gather in the Fire Department's emergency operations room, affectionately known as the "War Room," at fire headquarters off Hurricane Shoals Road in Lawrenceville. Here, they observe the weather situation on large, flat screen monitors while analyzing the nature of the calls coming into the 911 center to help emergency dispatchers send the most efficient amount of units to calls. Critical medical calls, working fires and reports of people trapped are considered priority.

Officials are able to remotely look up calls, allowing for commanders to ascertain the situation in real-time so that sound decisions are made. Here's an example: A homeowner calls and reports his house has been hit by lightning and smells smoke. Rather than sending a full structure assignment, just enough units are sent to get the job done. Such was the case July 29 when there were nine reported building fires. However, only three turned out to be working fire situations.

"It is not much different than fighting a battle," says Capt. Thomas Rutledge, the department's spokesman.

One evening, a storm seemed to punch the Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road/Riverside Parkway area in the gut as several working fires within a few miles of each other were confirmed. This required foresight by commanders, much like a battlefield strategy.

"The first (arriving) units get dispatched to their address, and then within just a minute or two, we then have to deploy units from another area to send to their stations for coverage," says Special Operations Chief Charles Wells. "It's a small area of fires, but we have to use a large area to get resources to."

This is due to the fact that commanders must back-fill empty stations with apparatus out on runs with units from outlying stations, sometimes miles away, Rutledge says. Many times, though, they don't get there because they will be dispatched to a call. To cut down on confusion, the plan does not allow units to jump on other calls.

"It requires some restraint on people that, yes, that may sound like a more significant call they can go to, but technically they're not any closer, so they need to stay and be prepared for that next call that comes in," Dusik says.

When Gwinnett's resources are tapped - or vice versa - officials have the option to call for mutual aid from surrounding areas. To ensure full overlap, all fire departments in the area carry the same hose fittings and appliances.

To prepare for the worst, Gwinnett is in the process of having extra engines, trucks, ambulances and manpower units fully stocked and ready to go at a moment's notice. Getting crews for the rigs is as simple as making a couple of phone calls.

"We always try to have more resources than what we need, but you never know," says Wells. "When it comes to storm preparedness and response, Gwinnett firefighters stand poised and ready for the challenge by taking a proactive, rather than a reactive approach."