Power outages, icy roads, falling trees, school closures and even earthquakes. This past week, the CSRA has seen it all.
And who do people always turn to for the latest information on such events?
None other than Pam Tucker, the director of Columbia County Emergency Management.
It doesn’t matter where a person lives in the CSRA. Whether it’s Augusta, Columbia County, Burke County or even Aiken County, almost everyone hangs on to every word coming from Tucker’s office.
And why shouldn’t they? Tucker has the most timely and extensive information available in the region.
Even last week when her first grandchild was being born in the middle of the ice storm, Tucker was at University Hospital keeping people abreast of the storm situation.
It has to make officials from Augusta-Richmond County stop and kick themselves a little bit.
Not to put down any of the efforts of Augusta’s Emergency Management Department with Interim EMA Director Chief Byron Taylor (in fact, the efforts by the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department last week were outstanding), but the EMA department is not the same.
For more than 20 years, Tucker was once the proud director of Augusta’s EMA department. Over her two decades in that position, she literally transformed it.
When Tucker was first hired on to Augusta’s EMA in the 1970s, the department’s biggest concern was nuclear war preparedness and organizing shelter sites. It wasn’t until President Jimmy Carter reorganized the Department of Defense that EMA took on what is described as an “all hazards approach.”
Back then, the EMA began to focus on natural disasters like tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and earthquakes, as well as airplane crashes and chemical spills.
But Augusta’s EMA literally started from ground zero because the community was unfamiliar with the agency and the industries didn’t trust the organization.
And who did all the hard work transforming Augusta’s EMA and reaching out to local industries? Yep. Pam Tucker.
“We started from nothing,” Tucker told the Metro Spirit back in 1999. “Back then, no one knew you and you didn’t know them. You had a one-line telephone that never rang and a plaque on the wall.”
Other cities in Georgia were so far ahead of Augusta that, at times, Tucker said it was embarrassing to go to state conferences.
“Believe me, everyone was ahead of us 21 years ago,” Tucker said in 1999. “They would make fun of this county when I would be at state level meetings. We constantly got laughed at.”
By the time she left Augusta’s EMA department in 1999 to start Columbia County’s Emergency Management Division, no one was laughing anymore.
Augusta’s EMA programs and Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) were described by William Taylor, chief of Atlanta’s Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement section, as being a “national leader” back in 1999.
LEPC’s Risk Management Plan was being used as a model for 66,000 companies nationwide. And Tucker was one of three EMA directors in the country chosen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help write a course that teaches other communities how to evaluate emergency exercises and drills.
For two decades, Tucker was dedicated to planning programs to ensure the safety of Augusta-Richmond County.
But when Tucker decided to apply for Columbia County’s newly created emergency services director position in 1999, some Augusta officials criticized her.
It was only natural for Tucker to consider the position in Columbia County, particularly since she lived in the county. And several people approached her, encouraging her to apply for the job.
Tucker said she was not interested for about three months until January 1999, when she received a phone call telling her that the job would be advertised in the following Sunday’s paper.
“So, when I saw the ad, I decided to apply,” Tucker said in 1999. “And I applied with great sincerity. I wouldn’t have applied if I had not made the decision that that’s where I wanted to go.”
There was another incentive that made the Columbia County job more appealing.
At the time, the base salary for the Columbia County position was approximately $46,470 a year. Back in 1999, Tucker’s salary in Augusta was about $41,300.
In order to apply for the job in Columbia County, Tucker had to ask close colleagues in the community for references.
As soon as her references learned she was considering leaving, they encouraged her to request a raise from the Augusta Commission.
“They kept saying, ‘I know they will pay you that much. I know they will. They don’t want to lose you,’” Tucker said in 1999. “Well, I believed them. If I could go back on that one I would.”
Tucker simply sent a letter to the mayor and then Administrator Randy Oliver stating, at the time, her salary range was between about $38,300 and $61,300. She pointed out that Savannah’s EMA director, whose responsibilities paralleled those of Augusta’s director, received $60,000 a year. And while Tucker did not have a degree, neither did Savannah’s director at the time.
“When I wrote the letter, I didn’t mention anything about a job,” Tucker said in 1999. “Well, it wasn’t but a couple of days later that I got an answer back saying, ‘No.’ So, my attitude was, look I asked and they said no. End of story.”
A few weeks later, Columbia County commissioners jumped at the opportunity of having Tucker the head of the newly created position at a starting salary of $46,470.
Now, Tucker was never in it for the money. She didn’t try to pit one county against the other.
But Augusta has to stop and think: If Richmond County had just forked over at least $7,000 more a year, where would Augusta’s EMA department be today?
For one thing, it definitely wouldn’t be under the fire department. Not if Tucker would have had anything to do with it.
Before she left, Tucker warned the Augusta Commission about combining emergency management and the fire department. She insisted that the community fully understood the importance of EMA and it shouldn’t be watered down.
“I believe that you would see the EMA suffer,” Tucker said in 1999, referring to the merging of the fire department and EMA. “I call it chloroforming the EMA. And I would die if I spent 21 years building this department up to this heightened level and then see it fall apart. That would just be devastating.”
It’s definitely a completely different EMA department since Tucker left.
Back when Tucker was the emergency management director for Augusta-Richmond County, there was a saying on the wall that read, “Learn from the past, live in the present and plan for the future.”
Too bad Augusta commissioners didn’t take that advice 15 years ago.
Well, Augusta’s loss is definitely Columbia County’s gain.