Local faith groups challenged to aid in emergencies

Fayette County Fire Chief Tom Bartlett (L) points toward a table-top mock-up of a disaster area during the Fayette County Faith-based Disaster Network conference held Feb. 16 at Harp’s Crossing Baptist Church. Ga. Emergency Management Agency Director Charley English was the keynote speaker. More than 100 area residents from 18 churches attended. Photo/Ben Nelms.

When there’s a disaster, be ready to step up and help, the head of Georgia’s Emergency Management Agency challenged representatives of 18 local churches last week.

The reality that churches play a vital role in disaster response was reiterated by Ga. Emergency Management Agency/Homeland Security Director Charley English.

“So how do you fit into the system?” English asked the audience. “Faith-based groups are the biggest players in the community. My challenge to you is to step up when it hits in your community. And when the disaster is not in your community, and if you view this as a mission, then go. But have the skills, training and preparation you need.”

Harp’s Crossing Baptist Church was the setting for the Fayette County Faith-based Disaster Network conference held Feb. 16. The conference was attended by more than 100 people representing 18 churches across the county who came to learn more about preparing for and responding to disasters that can affect any community.

English in explaining what volunteers should expect on the scene said the hours will be long and the situation will be stressful. He also encouraged volunteers to be ready to be understanding of the plight of those suffering the disaster and to be ready to “share you faith.”

“We spend a lot of time waiting for our name to be called, but the issue is are you going to be ready when your name is called?” English asked.

The conference featured information pertinent to churches and church groups that will be responding to disasters both in Fayette County and in other communities. A sampling of the issues covered were on-scene disaster counseling, disaster preparations, an active shooter on church property, National Incident Management System basics, public health volunteerism and self-protection at a disaster scene. Group leaders for the various topics, many of whom are Fayette County residents, represented local, state and national incident management, healthcare and public safety agencies, companies and organizations.

The conference was also the site of a tabletop exercise dealing with the response to a tornado in the area of Bernhard Road and Redwine Road. Conference attendees split up into groups covering response topics such as public safety and housing to receive training from the various group leaders participating in the tabletop disaster exercise. Included in the exercise was a mock-up of the tornado site, complete with roads, houses and toppled trees to help participants visualize how the disaster response would be approached.

Fayette County resident and GEMA Director English stressed the importance of faith-based communities in responding to disasters, both now and in the future.

“There is a scriptural basis to help those in need,” English said to the representatives of the various Christian churches in the audience. GEMA also works with the members of all faiths when providing training for disaster response. “Jesus made no distinction between who is helped and who isn’t. That’s the premise I go on.”

The response to any disaster, regardless and size or scope, almost always begins with individuals and groups responding at the local level where the disaster occurs, English said.

An example of that response and the training that had already occurred was in Adairsville and Bartow County, the site of a recent tornado. GEMA and other agencies conducted training in Adairsville five years ago. That training helped prepare the community for what was to come their way in early 2013. Training at the local level for churches and other organizations that will be the first on the scene is especially relevant since to trigger Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance requires a congressionally-set threshold that 500 homes be uninhabitable. In the case of Adairsville, there were 949 homes damaged but only 230 were uninhabitable.

Among the agencies and organizations participating in the conference were Fayette Fire and Emergency Services, Ga. Public Health District 4, GEMA, the National Weather Service, FEMA, Red Cross, Fayette County Health Dept. and Piedmont Fayette Hospital.