Last week, the Switzerland County Commissioners appointed Chris See as the new Director of the Switzerland County Emergency Management Agency.
EMA Director is a county position, but half of the salary is paid by the State of Indiana for each county.
Although some people living in the county may not be familiar with the responsibilities of Switzerland County EMA, it may be one of the most important agencies in the county.
One that you should hope never has to be active.
“Basically what EMA does is coordinate emergency management at all the emergencies in a community,” Chris See said. “On a day-to-day basis, it’s grant writing and planning and preparing and doing trainings and such.”
And when disaster does strike?
“When that happens, we actually coordinate the events,” See said. “The sheriff and the fire chiefs would be in charge of the event, and I would kind of act like an aide. Any resources that they would need, hopefully I would be able to assist with.”
Those resources might include bringing in different agencies into conversations and knowing what each entity can ‘bring to the table’ if an emergency happens.
“Let’s say that we had a big fire,” See said. “Maybe a big semi truck comes through town and the chemical on it caught on fire and it couldn’t be put out with water. Maybe it reacts with water. Something that we might do is try and figure out what type of extinguishing agent we can use. Maybe it would be sand or dirt. We would also coordinate workers from the state, the county highway, town utilities, and others while the fire was put out and everyone was kept safe.”
Other natural disasters, such as tornados, would also bring EMA into play.
“Maybe a tornado comes through Vevay and we’ve got 50-60 people trapped in their houses,” he continued. “Maybe that’s more than the fire departments or other emergency personnel can handle, because there are many other things going on. It would be EMA’s job to then coordinate more rescue resources to come in and assist.”
One of the things that See will be working on in his new position will be establishment of a group of volunteers and others who may be called on in an emergency situation.
“I want to get a volunteer staff together to assist,” See said. “We also need a deputy. If a disaster comes through and wipes the EMA director out, if I’d get hurt or killed, you have to have other people who can do the job. That’s one of the responsibilities I’m tasked with, to gather a group of people who know how everything works. Who to call and when to call.”
See said that after a disaster happens, EMA keeps track of damage and those costs are tallied up. The county then receives FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) money if certain cost-damage levels are reached.
So who determines if it’s a disaster?
See said that should a major event occur, the Switzerland County Commissioners are the ones who would officially declare the emergency, putting the EMA and other agencies into action.
“What the commissioners would do in coming up with that decision is to come up with a damage assessment,” See said. “That’s where EMA would come in. We would evaluate the area. If a tornado would hit, but it would be an F3 and just goes out through one of Schuler’s fields, we’ve got crop damage, but very little or no damage to homes or to people. That would be a different situation.”
But, See recalled a year or two ago when six inches of rain fell in the county in about two hours, washing out roads and knocking out power. That was a situation where the washed out roads caused financial stress on the county, so federal and state money could be sought.
And the recent snow?
“It was a lot of snow and a lot of ice, but there wasn’t a lot of damage, so we probably wouldn’t be involved in that,” See said. “But let’s say that there were strong winds and freezing temperatures that caused a lot of broken water pipes and things like that, then we would have been involved. But just because 10 inches of snow it, that doesn’t automatically mean EMA is involved.”
He pointed to the aftermath of Hurricane Ike when most of the community lost power; and the heavy flooding in 1997 as events where EMA would be active.
“If ever there was a school bus wreck, and we had 50-60 children hurt, EMA would be in charge of getting all of the ambulances from wherever in to assist,” See said.
So, basically, Chris See has a job developing a plan that no one in Switzerland County hopes ever has to be put into practice.
But it’s good that the plan is in place.
This week is See’s first week on the job by himself, with outgoing EMA director Connie Wallace spending last week with him getting him acclimated to the job. A person from the Indiana Department of Homeland Security who is in charge of HAZMAT operations for Southern Indiana, stopped in to meet See and educate him on what services the state agency can provide in an emergency.
“It’s a lot of planning, preparing, networking,” See said. “It’s a big job and it’s an important job because we have all sorts of groups that we have to pull into the plan, from elected officials to the schools. I’m excited about the opportunity.”
Chris See is a graduate of Switzerland County High School; and has been involved in volunteer efforts here in Switzerland County, including currently serving as the chief of the Jefferson-Craig Volunteer Fire Department.
He also spent six years in the Air Force; and worked in an emergency operations center in Mississippi in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He holds two degrees in fire science and emergency management and public safety; and he has been a fire instructor for the county since 2004.
He’s been involved in the Local Emergency Planning Committee here, serving as its chairman from 2010-2013; and he formerly served as the Public Health and Safety Coordinator for the Switzerland County Health Department.