The Morgan County Emergency Management Agency director who replaces Eddie Hicks, who retired Tuesday, will need the skill and training to stay atop an ever-changing industry, according to local and state experts.
Hicks, 68, said communication and strong working relationships with area and state first responders, police, firefighters and civic and industrial leaders are vital to making EMA operations run smoothly in times of crisis. Hicks also served as Colbert County EMA director from 1979 to 1996. He replaced Howard Proctor in Morgan County in 1996.
“To be successful at this job, you have to be a jack of all trades and a master of none,” said Hicks, who holds a bachelor’s degree in emergency management administration from Athens State. He has served on state, national and global emergency management and public safety boards the past several years. He has become certified in hazardous material training and other public safety programs over the course of his 41-year career.
“It really takes a person who can deal with and understand other people to have success,” he said.
At last week’s County Commission meeting, the commissioners voted 4-0 to fill the EMA director’s job with pay ranging from $23.47 to $30.65 an hour.
Commission Chairman Ray Long said the EMA job is being advertised for three days internally and then three days countywide. If there are no qualified candidates, Long said, it would be advertised to the public for seven days. He said the position will likely be filled this summer, and there are no plans to name an interim director.
“We usually don’t name interim department heads,” he said. “There are people in our offices who know how to conduct day-to-day operations of their departments.”
Minimum qualifications for the Morgan EMA director’s position are a bachelor’s degree in business administration, public administration or related field, three to five years of progressive management experience in emergency management or a related field, or any equivalent combination of education, training and experience, which provides the requisite knowledge, skills and abilities for the job.
“We’ll require our director to attend seminars and conferences for continuing education,” Long said. “The person will need to stay up-to-date on the latest technology that is out there.”
A University of West Alabama professor said having a solid understanding of the latest technology trends, at least five years’ experience in the field and perhaps even a master’s degree should be minimum requirements.
“Today’s EMA directors should be adept at reaching the community through all multimedia platforms,” said Barbara Russo, an assistant professor who also worked as an emergency management coordinator at Ole Miss. She holds doctorate in emergency management administration from Oklahoma State University. “COVID-19 has shown us we cannot rely on the internet as the sole means of communication. We need radio, TV, newspapers, bilingual services.”
She said EMA directors should be good with diverse groups and “real team builders.” Russo said having hazard material experience and a relationship with the Department of Energy are too important to ignore, too.
“EMA directors are people who coordinate and not respond," she said. "They need a working knowledge (of crises) and a resource list of the other agencies to respond.
“A master’s degree will serve the director well. It will help ensure the person has certified emergency manager credentials. To get those credentials, you need at least five years’ experience in EMA.”
Experience in public administration and finance allows local EMA directors to better communicate with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, she said.
“Grant writing has become an important part of the director’s role,” Russo said. “Getting grants has become very competitive and details in the proposals must be meticulous.”
Hicks said he envisions weather radar enhancement and smartphones playing greater roles in public safety in the future.
“Instead of hearing the sound of a storm siren or notification, residents in affected areas will be receiving and some already are receiving notifications on the phones that the area is under a weather warning of some sort or an emergency requiring evacuation,” he said. “It will be like a siren or notification on your hip.” He said the tower sirens have 1950s technology and are expensive to operate and maintain.
Russo agreed, but said public safety via smartphones has some issues that should be addressed. “You’re going to lose a segment of the population, people who can’t afford a smartphone, some older people who don’t have them, people who might live in areas with no cellphone service or internet,” she said.
Hicks said drones with their ability to send photos and videos of impacted areas to operation centers and to every first responder will play a larger role in emergency management.
“We’ve conducted tests and emergency drills using drones,” he said. “We had them over the Gordon Terry Parkway and Beltline intersection and would send the drone down to Alabama 20 to see how the traffic might be backed up. They’re going to save lives, property, time and, of course, money. It will hopefully help with the decision-making.” He said drones with heat sensors can locate missing or wanted persons believed to be in a specific area.
He said he learned the importance of having alternate plans in case the first plan of safety fails.
He has helped form the Local Emergency Plan Committee that meets twice a year and the Industrial Emergency Association comprised of industrial plants’ quality safety directors that meets quarterly to discuss ways to avert and handle crises along the Tennessee River.
“Each plant has its own set of plans and every case is different,” he said. “We’d notify the police and fire departments and determine what is needed.”
He remembers being the Colbert County civil defense director and communicating with public safety agencies via a citizen’s band radio. He said his handle was “Big Ed.” When he arrived in Morgan County, the EMA operations center's stage in the basement of the Morgan County Courthouse had a long green chalkboard where the latest weather or crisis updates were posted. Now computers, televisions and projectors keep the operations center informed.
Jan. 1, 2000, was a date of “gloom and doom” that worried Hicks and his office. “Y2K got a lot of coverage because it was believed the computers could not handle the 2000 in its programs,” he said. “A lot of work went into preparing for a disaster if the computers shut down because of Y2K. We were prepared even though nothing happened. I broke out the grape juice so we could celebrate.”
Hicks said the terrorist attacks in 2001 changed emergency management duties forever. The Department of Homeland Security was formed and EMA office workloads expanded immensely. “Pre-planning” became the buzzword, he said.
Ten years later, when a series of 62 tornadoes ripped across the state killing 238 people, Hicks said his Morgan office issued 27 tornado warnings in three different waves. Morgan County was hit by three tornadoes, according to the National Weather Service in Huntsville.
“We were so fortunate we didn’t lose any lives,” Hicks said. “Our contiguous neighbors around us all lost people. We had about a three-day warning of the storm system. We had all of the agencies and a plan in place. We were just fortunate.”
Lawrence County had 14 tornado-related fatalities and Limestone County had four.
He said the job took him to the Gulf Coast to help assist in EMA operations in hurricanes Frederic (1979) and Ivan (2004).
Long commended Hicks for his work in helping small businesses and individuals secure loans from the April 3, 2018, straight-line winds that damaged or destroyed at least 80 Decatur homes.
“Eddie has been valuable with the recent flooding we’ve had in the county and helping get aid for those affected by the Neel tornado in November 2016 that popped up without notice,” Long said. “He’s done us a wonderful job and will be missed.”
Hicks said he plans to spend time with his family and travel in his retirement.
“I completely enjoyed what I did. Now I want to spend some time to do what I want to do,” he said. He said he has been married 49 years and has two grown sons and a granddaughter.