Published 8:02 am Thursday, August 27, 2015

GATESVILLE – Are you prepared for the worse?

In case of a natural or man-made disaster, have you shared valuable contact information with not only your family, but local emergency response officials as well?

What if a storm – summer or winter – forced you to leave your home and do so in a hurry? Does your family have a plan in case they need to hurry out the door? Do you have a disaster kit to grab as you leave your residence…one containing vital information, records and a few of life’s necessities to last for a couple of days?

If the answer is no to any or all questions, the time to take action is now. And Gates County citizens can start that process by understanding that a disaster isn’t just restricted to a hurricane and know there is a local Code Red notification system as well as an emergency data registry and how citizens can get information during and after a disaster.

“When the word disaster gets thrown around here in Gates County, our citizens think only of a hurricane,” said Gates County Emergency Management Director Billy Winn. “Hurricanes indeed rank as a disaster, but we could have disasters of smaller scale much more frequently than we could have one devastating hurricane. A hurricane is a low occurring, but high impact disaster. But we can have more frequently occurring, lower impact disasters, such as a snowstorm, ice storms, heat waves, bad thunderstorms. The high level impact disasters are hurricanes and tornados.”

Winn said over the years the county has made a lot of headway in preparation for all types of disasters.

“We’ve taken a multi-hazard approach, instead of having a plan of action for each type of disaster,” he said. “We now have a plan that is applicable to any kind of disaster. That’s a direction that incident command and incident management has taken over the years.”

Emergency Management personnel and other emergency responders have learned a lot, Winn said, from the Forest Service.

“They have these huge forest fires and are able to manage a broad response,” he noted. “They initiated an incident management system and we, the community of emergency responders, have taken that and merged it into a multi-disciplined way of doing things. We, as emergency managers, have adopted and taken that to our planning efforts.”

Winn cited a local veteran of emergency management, David Humphrey of BertieCounty.

“David said the consequences of disaster are predictable. It doesn’t matter what type of disaster it is, citizens are going to need power, water, food and shelter. Whether the trees fell because the wind blew or they fell because the ice on their limbs was too heavy, it makes no difference…the trees are still down. Regardless the flavor of a disaster, we still have to respond in a similar way,” Winn said.

Back in the day when Winn first joined the ranks of emergency management, he said there was a big push for everyone to have a hurricane kit.

“Now, you don’t hear hurricane kit, you hear the need of having a disaster kit,” he noted. “Your family’s needs are the same, no matter the type of disaster. You still need to have emergency telephone numbers, food, clothing, water, a supply of medicine, etc, no matter if a winter storm is coming or a hurricane is churning just off our coast.

“What’s a bit different now for us in emergency management is our ability to get information out there in advance of a pending disaster through our Code Red program,” Winn stated, referencing a mass public notification system that allows his office to make pre-recorded telephone calls to all citizens in the county.

What’s even more unique about this program is that emergency management is able narrow the window of those being notified if there is an isolated event, such as a tornado only impacting a small portion of the county.

“We can even use it to notify citizens of a water main break that will interrupt the services in a particular area of the county, or in the event of a road closure that only impacts those living in a certain area,” he said.

The downside to Code Red is that the only numbers listed in the registry are those currently in the phone book.

“There are many of our citizens who no longer use a land-line telephone, instead opting for a cell phone,” Winn noted. “We do not have those numbers; nor do we have email addresses of those who might what to use that method of communication to receive an emergency notification.”

In an effort to broaden the Code Red registry, Winn provided a web link (https://public.coderedweb.com) that Gates County citizens can use to provide contact information. A link to Code Red is also available on the county’s website.

“You can customize that information how you like,” he said. “You can put in the numbers for five cell phones; or choose to receive the information by text or email. Once we have your contact info you will immediately begin receiving these alerts.”

Another avenue of public notification is Facebook.

“When we, Gates County Emergency Management, first got on Facebook, we noticed a great number of people started liking our page and it’s continued to grow over the years,” Winn said. “The good thing is if you receive a Code Red alert, you can go to our Facebook page and ask questions. We have a volunteer that monitors that page and we will answer your questions.”

Winn was blunt when he said the county lacked an overall emergency preparedness plan back in 2003 when Hurricane Isabel made landfall along the Outer Banks on Sept. 18 of that year, packing winds in excess of 100 mph.

“We now have a plan that has been tweaked over the years and we feel we have a good plan when and if disaster strikes our county,” he stressed. “But you don’t know if you have a good plan until you get an opportunity to exercise it. We’ve exercised it on table top; we’ve talked about it; we’ve got everything written down on paper, but until it hits the fan you don’t know fully what you have.”

In its favor, Gates County is part of a 13-county group (in northeastern North Carolina) where ideas of emergency management are shared.

There’s also an emergency data registry available to Gates County citizens, in English and Spanish. That form helps emergency responders be aware of certain needs of the citizens, to include medical and special needs. It is available online at the county’s website (www.gatescounty.govoffice2.com).

“That allows us to know of the special needs of our citizens…say an elderly person that lives alone down a long path off the road,” Winn cited. “Information provided in this registry will let us know that in advance and we can check on them. It’s a thing that our citizens can do in addition to having their family members checking on them.”

Winn noted that the registry is not designed for the county to provide necessities, such as oxygen (for those needing that due to a medical reason) or a generator if the power goes out. He also stressed the need for Gates County households to invest in a battery operated NOAA (weather) radio.

The form is also available through local churches.

“We have built great partnerships with our churches and other community groups, such as civic clubs. If they invite me I’ll be more than happy to show up at their door to let them know of how we can help them in the event of an emergency,” Winn concluded.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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