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By DAMON LAWRENCE
Take-home vehicles. Expensive sunglasses. Too many employees.
Those are some of the issues that have been brought up about Roane County’s emergency management department over the past year.
In a lengthy interview, director Howie Rose addresses numerous issues and seeks to provide insight on why his department has a need for certain items, such as flat-screen televisions and flashy rims for emergency vehicles.
What’s your side of the sunglasses issue?
“We had a blanket purchase order from Galls. We buy things like chemical protective coveralls, boots, hard hats, safety glasses, things like that. I was making a blanket order. I put the wrong part number in there. It’s my fault. I didn’t pay any attention to it. When it all came in, we put it down here at the building with all of our other stuff. Alva Moore called me and said do you realize that we’ve been charged this for these safety glasses, sunglasses, whatever you want to call them, and I said well, no. I did not, so we sent them back, and there were six pair. We sent them back and that money was credited to the county.”
What’s your response to people who say your department needs to be looked at closer?
“I don’t care. If people want to look at our department, they can. One of the things here, employees, for instance. Let’s talk about employees. We’ve got more employees than most emergency management departments. There’s a reason for that. Out of our employees, two of those are paid for by that grant right there (emergency management performance grant). One is paid for by TVA, so the county only pays for me and my secretary. We would not have that TVA employee if it had not been for the ash spill.”
Why couldn’t grant money be used to build the communication tower out back?
“Every time there’s a homeland security grant comes out, it has a scope of work with it that says you can spend it on X, Y and Z. Building tower projects wasn’t one of those scopes, and that’s set by Nashville by the Governor’s Homeland Security Council. That’s the reason why it couldn’t be built with grant money.”
You all often get called by the state to help when there’s trouble in other parts of the state. Does the state pay you all for that work?
“Here’s how it works. We went to Cheatham County for four or five days, something like that. We didn’t have any expenses because they fed us and they let us sleep in the fire station. Let’s say we had some expenses for equipment or something. We would send the bill to Cheatham County. Cheatham County sends the bill to FEMA. Cheatham County pays us. FEMA pays Cheatham County, so any time we get sent out, we’re getting our money back.”
What’s the reason for all the flat-screen televisions in the operations center?
“One of the things that we have to do when we have an event going on is we have to monitor the media because we want to make sure that good, accurate information is getting out and that we have rumor control. For instance, we’ve got a shelter open at Roane State and maybe Channel 10 reports that it’s at Roane County High. That needs to be corrected, so that’s one reason. The other thing that we use those flat panels in there for is we use them as displays for maps. We use them for status boards and to display things like plume models. That kind of thing, and that’s the reason why we have those in there. A lot has been made about the TVs and the computer monitors ... That’s one server. Twenty-five monitors, but that’s only one computer, and the purpose for that is so that the EOC staff can come in there. We can do our paperwork, incident command forms.”
During the football season, do you watch games on the flat-screen televisions?
“No. Every square inch of this building is covered with a closed-circuit TV camera. Everything that goes on in here is recorded, and that’s available under public record. Why would you do something like that knowing that anybody can walk in here at any given time and say I want to see this footage or whatever.”
Some people have also said that you put slick new wheels on your emergency vehicles.
“The trucks that we’ve got, two of them, we bought those with grant money. When we bought those, those boxes that are in the back of them are very heavy. The problem we had, the wheels that come stock on the truck would not support that. We went to Ford and we said look, these wheels are too narrow, they bounce real bad and the suspension of the tires wouldn’t support it. What should we do? They said you need to buy rims at this length. Yes, they are shiny. I’ll give you that. They are shiny, but those were the only rims that met the specification that Jerry Duncan Ford told us to put on there. I’m sorry they look nice ... There’s a reason for why we do this stuff. The problem we’ve got is nobody ever says why did you do that, and we don’t get the opportunity to explain what we do.”
What’s your response to people who say Roane County has been around since 1801 and got by for many, many, many years without an emergency management department?
“After 9-11 this position really changed. You had all this federal money that has outflowed for domestic preparedness, getting everybody ready. That really was the linchpin event that changed the way we do things. It was a top-down kind of thing. The feds say we’re going to do this and they pushed down these mandates to the state and the state pushed down mandates to the locals, so that was really what changed. I think the public’s expectation of government to take care of them when something bad happens, I think is higher now than it used to be because of 9-11 and Katrina and those type things. Expectations have changed than what they were before.”
Does it bother you that your department was called out in the election?
“I don’t want to say that it bothers me. I wish that people would ask me questions before they insinuate things and get to the bottom of stuff before comments are made. Everyday we try to take care of all 52,000 people of Roane County to the best of our ability with what we’ve got to work with. I just think that sometimes people will make judgments or make comments without getting to the facts. I guess that is the only thing that would bother me.”
Do you have anything in the new facility that’s just for frills or is everything a need?
“I don’t think we have anything here that’s just frilly. Everything has got a purpose.”
Have you all ever purchased any Under Armour merchandise?
“There has been gear bags that were bought for the firefighters that I think are made by Under Armour because that was the cheapest gear bag that was out there. Yeah, it’s got a name brand on it, but we’re checking prices and even though it’s name brand, it’s the lowest price that’s out there.”
What do you think is the biggest misconception about your department?
“People don’t really know what all we do. I think that’s the biggest misconception. I think a lot of people feel like that we just sit over here and that we’ve got this nice place and we really don’t do anything. I think that’s one. I think the second misconception is that we’ve got all this money and we’re just running through it and blowing it. What people don’t understand is the majority of this money we don’t keep, we push it out to other departments. Really I think those are two biggest misconceptions is the fact that people don’t really know what we do. We try to tell folks. We go to Rotary and talk, the Facebook page, to try to tell people that we do more than just typical emergency management stuff.”
What’s the reason behind the take-home vehicles?
“The reason being is we respond after hours at night. Scott (Stout) and I are salaried. We don’t get paid a bit of overtime. If we get a structure fire in the middle of the night, we go. John (Rayburn) and Cheryl (Nunley), they respond to calls. Now, they’re hourly. You have to be able to get to a scene in a timely manner to do a job ... Like the night of the ash spill. Midnight, we’re at home in the bed, because of these take-home vehicles, we were able to get there quick and assess the situation, assist the fire departments and rescue and get a handle on what was going on. That’s the reason for the take-home vehicles.”
How much of a factor do you think the election was in some of these issues being brought up?
“Probably quite a bit. I’ll say this. There needs to be oversight. This is not our money we’re spending. It’s the people’s money. There needs to be oversight. People need to hold us accountable ... I think that political agendas sometime necessitate things to be looked at more so than they what they probably ought to be, but that’s just part of working for the government. You work for the people. We’ve got an open-door policy. I would love for everybody in the county to come over here and have a conversation like you and I are having right now.”