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Barnes: EMA mission keeps staff busy

With increased funding, a commitment for a full-time assistant and a growing list of state and federal requirements, Pike County EMA Director Jeanna Barnes still can’t shake one nagging question: “Why do you need more money and more help?”

“I think sometimes people just don’t understand exactly what we do here,” Barnes said as she sat at the small table that doubles as the conference table in the “emergency operations center” and EMA office on Oak Street.

Surrounded by maps and files; notebooks and training charts; boxes of water and supplies, Barnes and her part-time temporary assistant work here, coordinating, planning, training and preparing for what they hope will never happen: an incident, weather-related or otherwise.

“We honestly hope to go through all of this training and never use it. But you never know the day an Enterprise will happen,” she said, referring to the devastating tornado that destroyed Enterprise High School and large sections of the town three years ago, killing eight students.

Barnes, who said she holds a masters in emergency management, volunteered with the EMA for three years before being named director in June, when longtime director Larry Davis retired. Since then, she has focused on what she said is the core mission of the county agency: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. She describes the process as an ongoing cycle designed to assess and reduce risks; educate, train and prepare the community; coordinate response among agencies, from the federal FEMA to local nonprofits and first responders and all in between; and assist in recovery efforts, particularly as relates to securing recovery funds for government and private agencies.

Making that happen means Barnes spends her time educating the public – from making visits to classrooms to setting up weather-wise booths at community events – to developing citizen response corps. She serves as the Homeland Security point of contact in Pike County, and she coordinates with state EMA leaders and federal FEMA officials to make sure local agencies are in compliance with all regulations necessary to ensure they receive reimbursements and funding, such as the $600,000-plus the Pike County Road Department recently received to reimburse the county for expenses incurred during flooding in December 2009. She helps local entities, such as schools, determine risks and how to mitigate them. And she coordinates training for local responders through the National Incident Management System, a federally mandated training program for government agencies, schools, health care agencies, etc.

Barnes accomplishes all of this with an $188,459.17 budget that includes more than 64 percent grant funding. The office receives 24.8 percent of its funding from state grants; 8 percent from Citizen Corps grants; and 33.6 percent from Homeland Security grants, all of which total $136,591.62.

The Pike County Commission contributes 24 percent of the EMA’s budget. “We’ll receive only $40,867 from Pike County this year,” Barnes said.

The City of Troy contributes 5 percent of the budget, or $10,000, which is nearly triple what it contributed last year. “We’re really pleased with that,” Barnes said. “I think there’s some confusion here about the Pike County EMA… some people think we’re a county agency, and we are. But we also encompass all of the municipalities in the county as well. When an incident occurs we respond, regardless of where it happens.”

The City of Brundidge allocated $1,000 to the EMA this year, or .5 percent of the overall budget.

Barnes said she hopes to use the additional funding from Troy and Brundidge to increase community awareness and education programs. “This money will go into operating expenses, but I’d like to find a service to work with us to find a way to purchase weather radios that we could give to the public,” she said. “I’d also like to increase our awareness campaigns. We’re going to push as much of this money as possible back into the public.”

The money also helps offset the operating costs for the training and activities of the office. Barnes requested, and received approval from the Pike County Commission, for the hiring of a full-time assistant in the office during the 2011 budget year. Currently, she works with a temporary part-time assistant, a position approved in August that is limited to 39 hours per week and guaranteed only through February. The permanent full-time position, which would include benefits for any employee hired, would be allow for 40 hours per week of work and presumably would be budgeted beyond February.

Barnes said the volume of work being conducted by the EMA warrants the need for an assistant.

“If you just look at what we have to do with the NIMS training, you’ll see how much has to be done,” she said. “Since I was hired in June, the (government) added schools to the list of agencies that had to be trained. For us, that added nearly 600 people who need to have NIMS training.”

While the EMA staff does not conduct each of the NIMS training courses – they are offered online – the staff is responsible for coordinating the certification on the completed coursework, she said. “We have to maintain all the certificates in our office … the management is very time consuming.”

Another key project for Barnes is growing the Citizen Corps, a grassroots project that trains groups of volunteers across the county to be first-response teams in case of emergencies or incidents. “When a disaster happens, sometimes first responders may not be able to get to you quickly,” she said. “My goal is to have these CERT teams in designated areas throughout the county. These individuals will be trained in disaster preparedness, disaster fire suppression, disaster medical operations, light search and rescue, disaster psychology and team organization.”

In other words, they can function as self-contained first-response teams until fire, police and emergency personnel can respond.

“We have a few volunteers now, but we’d like more,” Barnes said. “Our volunteers right now are volunteer firefighters and ambulance drivers, and that’s terrific, but we really want the citizens to come forward and volunteer. Because, frankly, if it’s a big enough event, those folks are going to be busy doing their jobs.”

And at the end of the day, Barnes still has more ideas, more plans, she hopes to accomplish through the EMA. “We’re busy here,” she said.