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Dallas County prepares disaster response plans

The key element in handling any disaster, from a tornado to a mass shooting, is having plans in place ahead of time, Alabama EMA regional coordinator Don Hartley said. Next, you need volunteers to carry out those plans.

The Dallas County Citizens Corps Council took the first step Saturday in preparing the county for a disaster by hosting the first annual Be Ready Volunteer Forum at the Lions Club Park. The forum focused on recruiting volunteers who would already be in place to execute plans when a disaster occurs.

“It’s so important to have your community ready with a large number of trained volunteers,” Hartley said. “That’s what gets the community fired up and brings these volunteers in. Meetings like this one today.”

Representatives from different counties and emergency agencies shared experiences and lessons with those in attendance.

Gilbert Jennings, secretary and treasurer of Autauga County’s Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster, shared stories about the tornado that struck Prattville about one year ago, destroying 200 houses and injuring about 40 people. Jennings operated Prattville’s Volunteer Registration Center, which kept records of volunteers and supplies, assigned jobs and provided resources for those affected by the disaster. Jennings said dealing with volunteers who flood the area after a disaster occurs is a massive undertaking.

“You still need some type of facility where you can take care of people,” Jennings said.

Jennings, along with 2-1-1 Connects Alabama program coordinator Joann Johnson, led a group through a volunteer reception exercise. Jennings and Johnson discussed the purpose of each station, but both said the exercise was only an example and could be changed to fit each disaster and town.

“There is no blueprint on a Volunteer Registration Center,” Johnson said. “They’re all different.”

Dallas County Citizens Corps Council president Dr. Monica Newton said she was pleased with the turnout and information provided at the forum. City officials from Orrville and Valley Grande also attended the event, which Newton said would be key to a disaster preparedness plan.

“We had a great countywide presence,” Newton said. “I think every year it will build.”

The citizens corps council consists of representatives from several organizations including: Neighborhood Watch, Volunteer Management, C.E.R.T., EMA, and various first responders such as fire, police and sheriff’s departments. Newton said somewhere between 300 and 400 volunteers work with these organizations.

The citizens corps would like to see those numbers grow though, and vice chair Jeff Cothran said events like this forum would only help.

“All you can do is put it out there and hope people participate,” Cothran said. “If you have 10 percent of the people here today, you’ve got something.”

Deputy director of the Dallas County EMA Rhonda Abbott said the forum was a solid start. She mentioned that Jennings said during his presentation that Selma was one step ahead of where Prattville was when the tornado tore through the town.

“It was a great turnout,” Abbott said. “Today was more to bring awareness that there is a need for volunteers.”