Originally created 08/30/99

Disaster chief is prepared



AIKEN -- David Ruth lets his mind run wild with possibilities.

What if Hurricane Dennis or Hurricane Cindy came straight up the Savannah River and devastated Aiken County with flooding and wind damage?

Might an earthquake like the one that rocked Turkey happen here?

What would be the county's response if stock trader Mark O. Barton had opened fire in Aiken County instead of Atlanta?

Could the local fire agencies adequately handle a hazardous spill? A deadly pileup on the interstate? Forest fires?

Like a game, the county's new emergency preparedness coordinator plays around with the scenarios and the response.

"It's an awesome responsibility," Mr. Ruth said during an interview in the basement of the county office building, where he monitors the police scanner and watches The Weather Channel.

"I'm a coordinator, so I coordinate assets. And I guess that's the key to the thing is to be able to have a good working knowledge of your mechanical and material assets and also your personnel assets."

This game has different rules than Mr. Ruth's past job at Savannah River Site. While he can't reveal all the SRS secrets, he said he was responsible for handling the beginning of any on-site emergency, classifying it and taking immediate action to protect on- and off-site personnel.

"As the emergency duty officer, I basically got the ball rolling for the first hour. And then I would give the senior management a briefing and they would take over and my job would be basically finished," he said.

"So now, where I'm at, is I get the ball rolling, and I maintain the ball."

County Administrator Bill Shepherd, who is responsible for hiring the emergency preparedness coordinator, said he was impressed by the skills in emergency programs Mr. Ruth brought to the job.

"One of the important things in that position is the ability to function in crisis management," Mr. Shepherd said. "His skills are a tremendous asset to our county."

Mr. Ruth lives in Aiken and is married to Nancy Ruth, a registered nurse and owner of Kissability, an Aiken business specializing in the new trend of permanent makeup. Mr. Ruth has four children, including twin girls.

Since his start June 11, Mr. Ruth has been getting his feet wet, reading a pile of emergency manuals, each a few inches thick. He has been shaking hands with state emergency preparedness officials in Columbia and attending conferences and workshops designed to prepare for the litany of disasters he has dreamed up.

Last week, as Hurricane Dennis swirled off the coast of Florida, Mr. Ruth met with emergency preparedness officials in Charleston, where coordinators are familiar with such disasters.

With hurricane season in full force, Mr. Ruth must examine what role Aiken County would play in a direct hit to the coast.

The Aiken area is designated as an evacuation site for up to 140,000 people who would come from areas surrounding Beaufort and Hilton Head.

Manuals list the shelter capacity of Aiken High School and area churches. They document the number of available generators and the equipment stored by local Public Works agencies and fire departments.

Mr. Ruth must know all of this and how to access it at a moment's notice.

Most of his job responsibilities involve small adventures -- accidents, minor spills, fires. But Mr. Ruth is ready for the big time.

"It's a hurry-up-and-wait, but it's never a dull moment," he said.

Is Aiken County ready for disaster?

"With my limited time down here, I feel fairly comfortable with what we have," he said. "Overall, I think we look pretty good."

Greg Rickabaugh can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.