Gwinnett County Police, Fire, Georgia State Patrol, Emergency Management Personnel along with other county personnel such as Department of Transportation, prepare for their weather briefing at Gwinnett County’s Emergency Operations Center on Hi Hope Road in Lawrenceville Tuesday. The Emergency Operation Center is typically active during severe weather events. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)
As snowflakes began to accumulate in Lawrenceville, the Gwinnett Emergency Operations Center began to fill.
With a state of emergency declaration and the night ahead expected to transform the winter wonderland to dangerous ice, agency heads shuffled in. Police officers, firefighters, transportation employees, deputies, state patrolmen and support staff greeted each other before an 11 a.m. planning session, transforming the once quiet center, where a trio of employees monitored screens, to a flurry of activity.
By Tuesday evening, officials predicted, decision-makers would be at their posts permanently — either at the emergency operations center or at the respective “war rooms” for the county’s police and fire departments or the DOT’s traffic control center.
“You can feel the tone of preparedness,” said Jim McIntosh, one of the county’s emergency management specialists. “Everyone learned,” from a snow jam that paralyzed Atlanta two weeks ago, he said. “Everyone is taking this very seriously. Everyone would like to err on the side of caution this time.”
While concerns about the weather event overnight Monday produced little ice Tuesday, officials ramped up for temperatures to dip and freezing rain and snow to freeze into ice by Wednesday. While state officials are warning people to stay off of the roads unless absolutely necessary, there are also concerns that the ice could cause massive power outages through the region and possibly cause trees to fall across roads and onto houses.
“Our emergency response is a top priority,” said Gwinnett Fire spokesman Tommy Rutledge, who said that a couple of additional fire engines and three extra ambulances were put into service for the event. Additional personnel and resources were also on call to respond to downed power lines, securing them until utility crews can arrive.
Gwinnett’s police force initiated a mandatory hold-over, meaning that officers would work four additional hours after their nine-hour shift to keep more manpower on the roads. Special operations staffers and reserves are on stand-by, added spokesman Cpl. Ed Ritter.
While the war rooms will help command staff shift resources during the event, all of the coordination will come at the command center, said J.W. Thaxton, the fire department’s liaison to emergency management.
Thaxton spent Tuesday morning monitoring the weather and watching alerts from throughout the state, along with McIntosh and Nancy Coltrin, another emergency staffer. Gwinnett’s Emergency Management Director Greg Swanson is on vacation this week, but his crew has been well-trained, along with all of the employees across the county that come together in a crisis.
“They are prepared,” said Joe Sorenson, Gwinnett government’s spokesman, who is called out to the center when it is activated to certain levels. “From time to time, you know incidents like this are gong to happen.”
Gwinnett’s EOC, which opened not long after devastating floods hit the county in 2009, has mostly been activated for weather events. Thaxton said emergency management staff were in place last spring when firefighters were taken hostage. “We were at a monitoring level,” he said. “But we were prepared to move up (to activation).
It has space for more than 50 personnel from across the county — from the first responders to fleet officials, transportation, water resources and even parks and recreation, who have big earth-moving equipment that can come in handy in an emergency. It also has seats for other agencies, like the health department, Gwinnett’s many municipalities, private companies such as Georgia Power and non-profits like the American Red Cross to sit in in an emergency.
“You built it, and you are ready, but you hope you don’t have to use it,” Sorenson said, adding that even as significant as this winter storm is, the center has the capacity for even more resources. “If all these seats are filled, it’s a big deal. … It’ll probably be half full at some point today.”
McIntosh described this week’s weather problems as a “regional event,” with the state Emergency Operations Center activated Monday in Atlanta and other counties and cities coordinating their own resources. The Georgia DOT has pulled in crews from the southern part of the state, and Georgia Power has brought in people from across the country to help, but those will likely be coordinated at other sites.
Luckily, the Gwinnett center is patched in, and all are able to follow events and responses. If needed, county officials can reach out to partners in other parts of the state for help.
“We can keep our pulse on everything,” McIntosh said. “We have to understand what resources are available and how we coordinate … so we can make the best decision when the time comes.”
County personnel prepare for winter storm
Gwinnett County Police, Fire, Georgia State Patrol, Emergency Management Personnel along with other county personnel such as Department of Transportation, prepare for their weather briefing at Gwinnett County's Emergency Operations Center on Hi Hope Road in Lawrenceville Tuesday.