The recent tornado and severe storms warnings gave one pause to think about how Fayette County would be prepared to cope with a devastating disaster situation.
Not to discount the very real and threatening tornadoes, storms, hail, flooding and fires that have caused injuries, the loss of homes and considerable damage in our county in years past, nor forget the efficient, caring and tireless work put forth by our county, state, volunteer fire departments, sheriff and police departments, and countless others to help those in need. The responses of those who serve so faithfully are not to be forgotten, or taken lightly or for granted.
Another long-time group, dedicated and prepared to serve when and where needed, is the Fayette County Emergency Management Agency, which began in the early years as Civil Defense and later (1980) became ESDA.
Meet Steve Koehler, coordinator of the FCEMA, which is located in the basement of the Fayette County Jail.
Moving with his family from Tennessee to his wife’s family farm north of St. Elmo, he brought with him experience in disaster works through his lengthy and close affiliation with the American Red Cross, and has proved to be an asset to Fayette County.
Steve Koehler of St. Elmo was hired to be the coordinator of the Fayette County Emergency Management Agency about six years ago, bringing with him a background of considerable experience with emergency work.
Wanting to be involved in community work in Tennessee, he served as a Boy Scout leader for 10 years, and worked with the American Red Cross.
After serving on the board of directors of the Heart of Tennessee Chapter of American Red Cross in Tennessee for three years, he was elected the president of the board. “We had 17 counties, and I got a lot of emergency experience down there, as well as (when serving as a) director,” he said.
Explaining his introduction into the Fayette County organization, he said, “I took over for J. Carl Smith. He taught me a little bit, and I’ve learned the rest of it on my own.
“At the time the position was open, I was just leaving Pinnacle Foods Co. at St. Elmo, where I had worked as the distribution manager. They were discontinuing the distributing from St. Elmo. We were looking around for something else to do.”
In his job as coordinator, Koehler works two 10-hour days each week. It works well with his family business, Savannah’s Antique Store, in Altamont.
Although he regularly works as coordinator only 20 hours a week, he is on call for county emergencies at all times.
“We had looked around for something we wanted to do for about a year. Then, when I took this job with 20 hours a week, I wanted a business that I could break away from at any time,” he said.
Tip of the Emergency Iceberg
With the job calling for 20 hours a week, it does not seem like much is required of the coordinator or the program/organization; but the title is just the tip of the iceberg.
In place is a well-thought-out and efficient method/plan for coping with virtually every type of emergency in Fayette County, located in the Fayette County EMA quarters, in the safest place for operations, the basement.
The EMA Operation Center consists of Koehler’s office and communication center, which are under renovation right now; the volunteer and resource manager’s room; showers and toilet facilities; a full kitchen; and a large room called the continuity of government operations room.
Talking about the latter room, Koehler said, “If we have a total disaster (tornado, storm, etc.) and the courthouse gets damaged to where they can’t meet and take care of the disaster, we can run the county government from this room.”
He pointed to a large section of telephone jacks on one wall. “Both the walls and the ceiling are a foot thick,” he said. “Back in the days of Civil Defense, they were basically designed for bomb shelters. Now they are more for tornadoes, and we have never had to open what we call the emergency operation center, which is a good thing.”
Koehler explained the designated seating around the large table in the room.
“I have a seating chart that tells me the chairman of the (county) board sits here,” he said, indicating the chair at the head of the table. “I sit here (to the chairman’s left), on around the table with the officials. Everyone in the county has an assigned seat,” he said.
“We have a generator. The whole county could be out (of power), but we would have power. We have trained weather spotters from the weather service in the St. Louis area. I get Shelbyville also on my radio at home,” he said.
The Coordinator’s Job
“I work directly for the county board chairman (a position currently held by Steve Knebel). The person in this position never makes a decision. My job is to feed information related to what decisions the county board chairman has to make,” Kohler said. As coordinator, he informs the chairman of expenses, and he can advise of needs.
“The second part of my job is relief source for the county. If a fire chief would call, needing another fire truck (for a fire) and he can’t get hold of the chairman, and the fire mutual aid people can’t get it for them, I will get it for them.
“If the highway department needs a bulldozer, I will get it for them, that is, with the direction of the county board chairman. Everything we do is going to cost money,” he said. “My job is to get resources for Fayette County, that’s what they pay me for.”
Resource Manager Book
The resource manager book is filled with information on resources of every description and kind. Although the book is filled with information on all professional services and equipment, for any resource that may be needed, homework was done locally.
For example, area churches were contacted to ask if and how many people the church could accommodate for sleeping, meals and parking in the event of a disaster.
“The book contains all the funeral homes in the county, Red Cross, tire repairs (for emergency vehicles), school buses. Just about everything we would ever need is in this book.
“If there was a need for evacuation of people from the county, the school buses should be used, and we should have an understanding with the school officials,” he said.
In the event of a total disaster, he would call on the state and Illinois Department of Transportation for resources, manpower, services, etc., and in the event of a disaster, first responders would be not only hospital and ambulance personnel, but also power company employees, electricians, public water works employees and gas company workers.
“We are prepared pretty much for any kind of disaster,” he said. “But should we have one too big for us, and I should feel overwhelmed, I would call in the state and they would send a team of managers to help me.”
The Emergency Operations Pointment Book
Mandated by the state, this large book is called the EOP master copy.
“It is signed off on by the state, and I have to have it signed off on every year in order to keep our grant and our accreditation as an agency,” Koehler said.
He has to send in a plan of element review to the state every two years. “They will review it and send it back with comments to change this or that, or with check marks to show that it is OK,” he said.
The book provides among other things, direction on what he can do as coordinator and what the agency needs to do. It provides the agency with important information needed in the event of a disaster. All of the county officials and representatives seated around the table have a copy of the book.
The Search and Recovery/Rescue Teams
There are several functions this agency performs, including underwater search and recovery, and ground search and rescue.
Koehler attended search and rescue management training, and he said the ground search and rescue has been in operation for about two years, with successful results. He said the Fayette County agency, other counties, law officers and fire departments have worked together on search and rescue.
Coordination of these and other efforts is part of Koehler’s job. “The search and rescue management training gives you a little bit of how to search on the grid,” he said. There is no wasted effort or time, no overlapping of ground already searched.
“That is the way we proposed it. We’re an infinite command system, which the fire departments are very experienced at, and with all the volunteers with the K-nine team, we know where they are at.”
“We want to be called right away, the minute someone is missing, because the more time that elapses, the harder it is, especially for individuals under 5 years old and those over 60. We don’t go after runaways or escaped inmates or convicted criminals. That is not our job,” he said.
He added there is interest at this time for underwater divers for the search and recovery team.
Emergency Operation Team & Basic Missions
Koehler has an emergency operation team, a group of volunteers.
“My assistant director is Jim Mahon,” he said. “He is also president of the ham radio club. He is my deputy coordinator. When I go on vacation, he fills in for me, and his wife is my resource manager.”
“I have four basic missions: No. 1 – Mitigation-planning for a disaster before it happens; No. 2 – Preparation-holding training sessions and developing our crews for where they are and what they are going to do; No. 3 – Response-for every dispatch we respond to, whatever disaster there is; and No. 4 – Recovery.”
Discussing changes over the years, Koehler said, “In the early days of Civil Defense, they also took people food and water during big snowfalls and bad weather. That has changed, not because of me, but because the Illinois Emergency Management Agency has given us our direction, and that’s why we’re federally funded.”
When the tornado warnings were numerous in our county Friday, and reports of them touching down in nearby counties, it was comforting to have learned of the extent of emergency coverage for Fayette County in the event of a disaster.
It was good to have learned of the well-informed people who are prepared to operate our government and provide for the county’s distress, even from basement headquarters of the Fayette County Emergency Management Agency.