Originally created 08/08/03

Chief is prepared for possible attack



If terrorists target Augusta, Chief Howard Willis, Augusta's Emergency Management Agency director, will be the one warning city department officials and industries.

Chief Willis has been assigned the duty of contacting city departments and industry leaders in case of a terrorist attack. As part of the emergency management job, he even has at his disposal a weapons of mass destruction task force, which he said is made up of about 70 law enforcement officers, EMA workers and airport officials throughout the Augusta area.

The task force, he said, would be used only in response to a catastrophic event.

"The emergency management role is to bring all of the agencies together to take care of any emergency event," he said.

Nearly every day, Chief Willis said, he receives about 15 e-mails with sensitive national security information and sends them on to appropriate departments. City officials say Augusta has no direct link to the Department of Homeland Security.

"I would have to agree that there is generally not a very clear-cut, direct contact with homeland security for many of our city departments," said Peggy Seigler, the assistant to the city administrator.

However, Chief Willis said his contact on terrorism issues - the Georgia Emergency Management Agency - is a branch of Homeland Security and creates no lag time in distributing information.

"I feel pretty good about it," he said.

Anytime a terrorism alert level increases, Chief Willis said, he quickly contacts each city department by e-mail or phone. He said it is up to individual departments to learn about decreases in the level.

"Going down, that's a good thing," the chief said. "But when the level goes up, I feel there's an urgent need to let the people know as quickly as possible."

When the last terrorism alert level decreased, the city's utilities department didn't receive word of the lowered level immediately, causing a delay in opening Central Avenue, which is closed at the city's water treatment facility each time the terrorism threat level rises to orange. The closing has caused traffic problems in the area.

Doug Cheek, the assistant director of the engineering and construction division of the department, said his office doesn't have a cable hookup to monitor national news reports and he usually gets his updates by e-mail. However, he said Chief Willis has kept his department thoroughly informed on national terrorism threats.

Lisa Ray, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, said her department often relays information to Chief Willis from the Department of Homeland Security through the Georgia Information Sharing and Analysis Center.

If the chief cannot be contacted, she said, a 24-hour warning contact - the 911 center in Augusta - serves as a backup.

"If it happens at 2 a.m. and for some reason we can't get in touch with the EMA director, we want to make sure there's a 24-hour place that we can get a body," she said.

Ms. Ray said Augusta probably has more emergency contacts than many communities in Georgia because of the Savannah River Site, noting that the state agency has a contact with the SRS control room.

Ms. Ray said her agency was recently classified as a branch of the Homeland Security Department at the request of Gov. Sonny Perdue.

"Our reason for being is to be the link between local governments and state resources," she said.

However, if a major terrorist plot were uncovered, Ms. Ray said, Homeland Security officials could skip the state agency and directly contact Chief Willis.

"The important thing is we've got a lot of different avenues in place," she said.

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3904 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com.