April marks the 10-year anniversary of the tornado outbreak that devastated Cullman County and other parts of Alabama, and a few local agencies gathered at the Cullman Electric Cooperative Thursday to reflect on some of the lessons that were learned to prepare for another similar event.
At a luncheon hosted by the co-op and Cullman County EMA, representatives from local law enforcement, fire departments and emergency medical services spoke with each other about their memories from the 2011 storms.
Co-op Communications Manager Brian Lacy said the co-op has had a lot of turnover over the past 10 years, with more than half of its current employees coming in after the 2011 storms, but those new employees have brought new ideas for the co-op’s plans for future severe weather possibilities, he said.
“We’ve lost a lot of knowledge, but we feel like what we have gained in those new employees is a lot more valuable in terms of new energy and new ideas in how we approach things,” he said.
While the co-op hasn’t had to deal with an event on the scale of the April 27 tornadoes at a local level, the mutual aid agreements it has with other electric cooperatives across Alabama and the south have sent linemen out to assist in large-scale storm recoveries in other areas, Lacy said.
“Our guys get a lot of experience working in those types of situations for disaster recovery,” he said. “We’ve also got some great connections, and we know that the next time something happens here, we’re going to have people from other co-ops across the state and across the region that are going to be here at a moment’s notice if we need them.”
Lacy said the Cullman Electric Cooperative has also upgraded its technology over the past decade, with a new dispatch system, outage reporting system and inventory system, along with an emergency operations center to aid in disaster recovery.
Sheriff Matt Gentry said the ability to communicate with the public has seen a lot of improvements over the past 10 years, with an increased use of social media and the sheriff’s office’s Nixle alert system enabling residents to sign up to get text alerts on everything from crime to traffic.
The sheriff’s office has also created a communications director position, with a deputy who communicates with the media and public to make sure information is getting out, he said.
“Any time you’re dealing with a situation, it gives you more opportunity to deal with this and relay information to the media so they can get it out to the community,” he said.
Gentry said the sheriff’s office has also spent time training deputies to not rely on technology in the event of a disaster or event that makes some of it unusable.
When the Nashville bombing on Christmas Day knocked out cell reception for many residents, it showed deputies how important it was to be able to perform their duties and find their way around the county without the use of their phones, he said.
Gentry said Cullman County is blessed with good teamwork among its different agencies, and while he was assigned to the DEA working in narcotics when the 2011 tornadoes hit Cullman County, he was still able to come in and work with the sheriff’s office and the rest of the agencies to make sure the people affected were okay.
“I think that’s one of the great attributes that we have in Cullman, is the willingness to do whatever it takes get the mission accomplished together, and I think as long as we instill that every day, then no matter what the disaster is, we’re very, very successful as a community,” he said.
Cullman Police Chief Kenny Culpepper also highlighted the importance of cooperation and teamwork between agencies within Cullman County and around the state, and said the Cullman Police Department’s membership in mutual aid agreements was a real benefit in 2011.
Many of Cullman’s officers had already spent time in disaster relief in other areas and had already worked with the National Guard, and some of the police departments that Cullman had assisted in the past came to the city in 2011 to lend a hand in this community, he said.
Culpepper said he recently spoke in a mentoring session for new police chiefs, and he told them to participate in mutual aid agreements because the positives far outweigh the negatives.
“Don’t complain about being short-handed and how much it’s going to cost you, it’s going to pay dividends when you have that disaster yourself,” he said. “Because you’re going to know what to do and your men are going to know what to do, and also, you’re making those relationships with those other agencies.”
Culpepper said the department also learned the importance of making a plan for employees’ families in the event of a disaster, and recommended other agencies do the same so their employees can go out and work without worrying about their loved ones.
“It’s different if you go somewhere else and it’s someone else’s disaster,” he said. “When it’s your disaster, you’re not only working the disaster, you’re worrying about your families.”
Cullman EMS Director James Curtis said his agency took a direct hit in the April 27 storm, so when it was rebuilt, all of the offices were moved downstairs to put employees in a safer location if another tornado comes through.
Cullman EMS has also improved its communications and dispatch systems, and purchased a disaster cargo trailer that has a generator and offers the agency the ability to go out into a disaster area and care for any victims on the scene, he said.
He said Cullman EMS has also changed its license level since the 2011 storms from an emergency medical license to a critical care license. The agency is one of only seven ground ambulance services with that license level in the state, and it allows EMS to better take care of the community.
Curtis also stressed the importance of having employees prepare for disasters at home as well as at work, and having them make sure their families have the proper supplies and plans in place.
“Make sure they’ve got things in your house so they can take care of things while you get out in the field and go save those people and go provide support for the other agencies that are out there,” he said.
For private residents who are also looking to be more prepared for severe weather, the state’s Severe Weather Awareness Weekend continues through Sunday and offers a weekend of tax-free shopping for many items that can be added to a severe weather preparedness kit.
Some of the items include weather radios, batteries, phone chargers, flashlights, tarps, plywood, fire extinguishers, smoke detectors and portable power generators. A full listing of tax-free items for the weekend can be found online on the Cullman County EMA Facebook page.