Urban Area Perspective - Atlanta

By Joseph Straw

Tony Carper is director of the Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency, responsible for the coordination of emergency planning and response operations for the jurisdictions’ more than 2 million annual residents and visitors. Previously, Tony worked in emergency management and response in Florida and Georgia for over 32 years. He is the former director of the Broward County (Florida) Emergency Management Agency. During his 14 years there he coordinated operations for county government, 31 municipalities, and the almost 2 million residents and visitors, culminating with response to and recovery from Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Before his stint in South Florida, Carper served as director of emergency management and communications for Brevard County, Florida, coordinating responses to emergencies including floods, fires, hazardous material incidents, and hurricanes. In addition, he organized community emergency support for over 75 launches from Kennedy Space Center including response to the catastrophic loss of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. Carper is a former president of both the Florida Emergency Preparedness Association and the Florida Governor’s Hurricane Conference. For his work in the emergency management and hurricane preparedness Carper has received the Governor’s Award, the highest recognition of the Florida Governor’s Hurricane Conference, and the Dr. Robert Sheets Lifetime Commitment Award from the South Florida Hurricane Conference. Tony served in the U.S. Army and is a Vietnam veteran. He attended the United States Armed Forces Institute.


What are the responsibilities of your office?

We’re the Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency. Like most emergency management agencies, the local agency is the primary counterpart for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In the old days I think they called us civil defense agencies, back when Defense Civil Preparedness Agency and those folks assisted at the federal level, but now it’s all emergency management. We have primary responsibility for the city of Atlanta and Fulton County, and I think that’s a fairly unique arrangement in that we are a joint-funded and supported agency by those two jurisdictions. I don’t think you find that very common in most urban areas, but both of those governments support us and we in turn support and coordinate their activities.


What assets and threats are unique to your area?


The Atlanta urban area is one of the primary urban centers in the Southeast, and in the United States for that matter, and it really is a very high-density regional and national hub for things such as transportation, communications, pipelines, highways, banking, and other corporate infrastructure. Like many urban centers Atlanta has multiple major venues for sports, entertainment, and tourism. Also one of our major points of concern is of course the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which I think everyone knows ranks as one of the busiest airports in the world in terms of passengers and aircraft volume. The old saying is that you can’t get anywhere in the Southeast without going through Atlanta, and certainly threats to any of this infrastructure, whether it be public or private, pose a challenge in terms of homeland security.
On the natural side have the four seasons of hazards here in the Atlanta area. We have several major riverine flood basins that flow through the Atlanta metro area. One of the bigger ones is the Chattahoochee River, which goes from Lake Lanier on down to the Gulf of Mexico, and just last September there was a significant rainfall event here that damaged thousands of homes in the City of Atlanta and in surrounding areas, and also there are other natural hazards like tornadoes and we’re close enough to the Gulf and the Atlantic Ocean here to occasionally get some tropical activity. Then this winter we had a couple minor ice events, but not like anything up north.

How does the region plan and administer federal Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant funds?

We have a very—I would call it sophisticated, some would call it complex—but I think it’s a good charter that provides governance of UASI funds. Our region includes the City of Atlanta, Fulton County, DeKalb County, Cobb County, and Clayton County. And each of those jurisdictions has representation on four levels of governance within the UASI organization. And that ranges from a technical level, subject matter-expert level or committee level—that goes onto a strategic planning group, like fire chiefs, police chiefs, those types of people—to the executive management team, which are city county managers and their representatives, and finally to the policy level, which consists of elected officials. And the process for administering homeland security dollars starts when committees take the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) guidance for any given grant cycle, and they put projects together based on the priorities formulated by DHS, then the strategic planning group, which are fire chiefs and police chiefs, weave these proposals into the overall requirements and needs of each participating emergency response discipline. And then the executive level of course takes it and makes evaluations and then recommends these proposals based upon jurisdictional financial and budget policies and goals and so forth. And they refer those over to the policy group, which makes the final determinations to apply for those federal grant dollars that are available based upon all of the homework that’s been done by those other groups.
The planning process parallels that at every level. DHS comes out with a very thick book of guidance each year. And we’ve already established strategic plans within the region from previous years’ cycles, and we line those up each given year with what DHS priorities are, what our priorities have been, and what they continue to be, and what the needs of the disciplines are within all of the jurisdictions to meet the requirements of our strategic plan and of the DHS priorities. So that is the planning process as we go through the motions of formulating grant proposals every year.


What is the greatest challenge your office faces?

Well, there are just a lot of moving parts. And I think the biggest challenge has been to complete and coordinate all of the new capabilities we need. If you go back to the very beginning there was little or no capability beyond your normal fire and law enforcement and EMS response capability. Well, as time has gone by we have built additional capabilities into the system, but these continue to grow more complex, and with more moving parts, and it becomes a challenge year-in and year-out to coordinate all of those pieces, and to in the end, wind up with a workable solution and a workable project that will meet your needs.


What is one of your region’s greatest successes?


I think the biggest success is just the process itself. I think our ability to put together this regional system of governance, our ability to collaborate together, even though there are many disparate points of view and different agendas and competing interests among the regional partners, I think it’s a great accomplishment in itself to get them all to focus on one common effort and one common strategic planning goal. I think just the communications aspect of the whole urban area and the homeland security initiatives have been, I would say, our biggest success.


Did planning the Olympics in 1996 inform the post-9-11 mission?

At that time I was a director in South Florida and, believe it or not, we were involved in South Florida in the Atlanta Olympics because we had a couple of venues down there that had some preliminary rounds; but I would think that it’s very similar to the Olympic effort in that everyone was coming together for the good of the region, and it sort of helped everyone put aside their differing views on regional development and transportation and all these other pesky issues that plague urban areas. So I think it probably did have some carry-over even though as I said I wasn’t here in this jurisdiction. But just hearing people talk in our discussions and meetings I hear a lot of people refer back to that time and it has a similar ring to it. 



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