If a local disaster were to evolve into a regional or national incident, Columbia County Sheriff Clay Whittle says his deputies are better prepared to respond today than they were just weeks ago.
This past week, the sheriff's office became the first local emergency agency in the area to complete advanced-level National Incident Management System, or NIMS, training mandated by President Bush, said Jimmy Smith, a Georgia Public Safety Training Center instructor.
The department's top brass, including Whittle, participated in the weeklong course that all local, state and federal emergency response and public utility agencies must complete by 2007.
NIMS is based on techniques used by the U.S. and state forestry services to coordinate such things as manpower and supplies from multiple local, state and federal agencies to fight widespread fires, said Smith, a former district ranger for the Georgia Forestry Commission.
The training mandate was prompted by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The program is a protocol for police, firefighters, medical personnel and even public utility workers to follow in the event of an emergency.
"The right hand needs to know what the left hand is doing and (the federal government) recognized that they need to have a standardized way for everybody to function and manage an incident," Whittle said.
If an incident gets large enough to cover multiple counties or cross state lines, the response from the local, state and federal levels "needs to mesh," he said.
Last week, Whittle's senior staff had to coordinate an emergency response to incidents including plane crashes, natural disasters, wide-scale terrorist attacks and even a biological epidemic. The deputies also learned about the resources available to them through the federal government.
Whittle cited the poor response to Hurricane Katrina as something the NIMS program should help improve. A cornerstone of the system is to meet the physical needs of first responders burdened with extended shifts and dangerous work environments during a disaster.
"This scenario teaches us not only how to operate in a large-scale environment, but to take care of our own people so they can continue to operate, and that was never trained before," Whittle said.
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