Originally created 03/06/03

Willis takes charge of challenged office



Howard Willis, sworn in as Augusta's Emergency Management Agency director Wednesday, has carried for the past 1 1/2 years the memory of his visit to ground zero in New York City, just a few weeks after terrorist attacks leveled the World Trade Center's twin towers.

"The magnitude of that particular situation in New York - it gave me an idea of what could happen," Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department Special Operations Chief Willis said.

Amid the indescribable devastation he saw that day, he said, he couldn't imagine that he would one day accept a position that places him in charge of emergency operations for his hometown, much less at a time when the threat of terrorism would become a constant concern.

But officials say that from here on out, Chief Willis' job - which includes coordinating homeland security efforts for the city and much of the region - will be an uphill battle.

Chief Willis has nearly 30 years of public safety experience, all with the fire department, but he has spent the past four years as special operations chief, in charge of training, planning and coordination for large-scale city events, including the Georgia Games and Celebration 2000. He also is a charter member of the city's Emergency Planning Committee.

Mayor Bob Young, who is charged with supervising the EMA director and who made Wednesday's appointment, said Chief Willis will bring the position to a new level. But it won't be easy, he said.

"Right now," Mr. Young said, "the challenges are tougher than they've ever been."

SINCE SEPT. 11, 2001, homeland security has had a new and visible presence in the Augusta area, thanks in large part to local money. The problem is that Augusta - like so many other cities throughout the country - has homeland security needs far greater than local taxpayers can afford to support.

While property tax increases have funded a large part of these needs, federal funds have yet to materialize.

"We recognize that what's happening in Augusta is happening throughout the country," Mr. Young said. "There is a need for resources."

Last month, Congress approved a $397.4 billion spending bill that earmarked $3.5 billion for the nation's first responders, including firefighters, police officers and emergency management officials.

But that money was promised to local governments more than a year ago, according to the National League of Cities, an organization that represents 18,000 cities nationwide. And the bill provides less than $1 billion in new money, the league said in a recent news release.

"It's almost like an unfunded mandate because they're saying we have to do all these things with homeland security, and all of this money is not even being passed down to the state," Augusta Commissioner Lee Beard said recently.

When federal dollars do come down, they will be funneled through the Georgia Office of Homeland Security, which will distribute 75 percent of the money to local municipalities and keep the rest for the state.

So far, the state has yet to see any federal dollars, either.

IN AUGUSTA, local tax dollars have been almost exclusively used to improve homeland protection - from securing public buildings to safeguarding water systems.

For example, about six months ago, local money was used to buy more than 400 gas masks for area road patrol deputies - issued as part of the safety regalia now kept inside Augusta officers' patrol cars. Also, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Augusta commissioners approved $86,000 in city funds to purchase security equipment for the downtown municipal building, including security cameras, metal detectors and screening machines.

And in the past few months, a $40,000 state grant has allowed Augusta's fire department to purchase several "splash suits" - protective clothing that is worn when responding to a hazardous materials investigation. The grant also will fund the purchase of testing equipment, Fire Chief Al Gillespie said.

"You cannot prepare for everything a terrorist can do, but we're prepared for emergencies," Chief Gillespie said recently. "We protect our people as best we can from all types of things."

But the department hasn't been able to put as much money into preparations as it would like, he said.

Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength expresses a similar sentiment.

"Dealing with the federal government over the years, we knew it was going to take a while," he said late last month.

But not this long.

"Without a doubt, we hoped it would be expedited because of the importance," Sheriff Strength said. "I guess everybody else is going through the same thing, but the wheels turn so slowly out there."

CHIEF WILLIS fills a slot that has been vacant since November, when Dave Dlugolenski abruptly resigned to take a job with the U.S. Department of Justice, training first responders for terrorist attacks.

The EMA office is charged with coordinating responses to any kind of emergency event - from a natural disaster to a terrorist attack.

If it ever comes to domestic terrorism, Chief Willis said, that training experience will serve him well in his new position, especially in the absence of extensive resources.

"Planning right now is the big thing - planning and training," he said.

Since the former director left, Chief Willis has headed the EMA office on an interim basis and says he is prepared to face the current and future challenges - including a possible war with Iraq.

"If we do go to war, I will be able to serve the community so they'll feel safe and secure," he said.

"If we do go to war, I will be able to serve the community so they'll feel safe and secure." - Emergency Management Agency Director Howard Willis

Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215 or heidi.williams@augustachronicle.com.