If February’s historic ice storm had happened under anyone else’s watch, it probably would have been considered that person’s defining moment, but Columbia County’s Emergency and Operations Director Pam Tucker is about as defined a person as you can find. Her constant updates and lightning quick reactions to just about any situation – and her direct connection to the public through email and social media – has made her the face of her government, a role that is usually reserved for mayors and Administrators.
“It’s not like I intentionally try to be the face of ColumbiaCounty,” she says. “I’m not sure I am, but if that’s the case, I don’t intend to be because I certainly don’t want to take anything away from the elected officials and the Administrator who actually provide me the opportunities. Everything I’m allowed to do is because they allow it.”
The thing is, she has a lot to say.
“Communication is a key element of my job,” she says. “I knew from Day One, 36 years ago, that if I knew something and I was the only one who knew it, it did nobody any good.”
In that way, much of her career was making do until technology could catch up with her needs.
“When the internet came along and all the technology was there for sharing that information, I just figured out how to spread the word like I always knew it needed to be done,” she says.
First, though, came the Fax machine.
“It was fabulous,” she says. “I could now write news releases and put it on there and it would go out one at a time.”
Then came email, which allowed her to send information directly to the groups who needed to receive it rather than relying on media outlets, which had a tendency to dilute her information.
“In the old days, if I sent something just to the media, by the time they took what I sent and rewrote it, it would be this way here, that way there,” she says. “Parts of it would be true, but it never would be completely what I needed to say, and sometimes even the main point wouldn’t be made.”
In 2008 she created her Facebook page, and that allowed her to bring her messages and updates directly to the community.
“I was cautious of any of these social media sites for a long time, but I went ahead and got on Facebook in 2008 and started off with 30 or 40 friends,” she says. “Now, I’m up to 5,000 friends on my personal page, but it cut me off at that point because it’s limited, so I started a second page, Pam Tucker EMA, which is a community page, so it’s unlimited.”
The second page now has more than 5,000 friends, which means she now has access to over 10,000 people and their friends, giving her a full fledged communications network.
“If something happens now, I can put a message out in no time flat,” she says. “Within a couple of minutes I can have information disseminated to tens of thousands of people.”
Since 9/11, she says, people crave the peace of mind that comes with having immediate and accurate information.
“When people hear something, feel something or see something that’s out of the norm, they want to know what it is,” she says. “And I have investigative methods to find out pretty quick what things are. Thirty-six years – you know who is where and who knows what, so I can quickly get information.”
After 36 years, she ought to know that stuff, she laughs.
“If you could bottle up peace of mind and sell it, you could be rich,” she says. “People need peace of mind. They have enough problems at work and in their marriages and in their finances that they don’t need to worry. They know that they can hear somebody say something, but if they don’t see it on my Facebook page, typically they don’t worry about it. They don’t start getting concerned until I say something.”
That power comes at a cost, however.
“You feel like the life safety and the well being of everyone in this community is based on what you do, and it’s a tremendous responsibility,” she says.
She admits it’s also taken a personal toll.
“If you’re not willing to commit to the idea that you’re going to sacrifice a whole lot of your own life, it’s not for you,” she says. “Missing my own child saying his first words, or seeing him take his first steps or not teaching him how to ride a bike because you’re at work – I missed out on a lot with my son, and I think that went deep in my heart when my granddaughter was born [during the ice storm]. It was a moment in my life that I had to be there for, but I also knew that everything here was already done. Everything was set up.”
Aside from being a skillful communicator, Tucker is also a consummate planner, which is why she could take time out in the middle of the disaster to be present at the birth of her grandchild.
Outside of the flood of 1990, she says February’s ice storm was the hardest situation she’s had to deal with in her 36 years in Emergency Management, but not only was she ready with a plan, she was ready for the storm itself.
The county had just come through January’s snow and she was at Weather Fest, the Saturday wrap up of Severe Weather Week, when a Weather Service representative who was there to teach the storm spotter class called her over and mentioned that there was the potential for ice during the upcoming week. Only the European Model was indicating that, but it was still a possibility.
By Sunday morning, Tucker’s weather briefing showed a little more confidence in the ice storm, so she put the word out. By that night, she was told that a watch and a warning were coming for Monday.
“I said, ‘They’re starting. They know. It’s coming.’”
So Sunday night she cancelled everything for the following week and told her staff that they were going into response mode. Monday they started preparations. By Tuesday night they were finished preparing, and by Wednesday the ice was unavoidable.
“Right now, six weeks after, I’m finally starting to feel normal again,” she said.
In the midst of the crisis, she says she and her staff were lucky to get four hours a sleep.
“You drink a lot of coffee,” she says. “You eat when you can. You typically lose weight because even though you might start to eat something, you never finish it because things are popping.”
Her other duties for the county, which include fleet, the senior center, public transit, risk management and 311, don’t go away just because there’s a crisis, however, which makes her ability to multitask that much more valuable.
“I’m not the kind of person who’s easily distracted,” she says. “I can do multiple things and do them well. Maybe it’s from starting so young.”
Tucker was just 22 when she was hired by RichmondCounty, and though her departure 20 years later was controversial and a story in itself, she says the circumstances of her beginning helped shape her work ethic.
“The commission at the time in RichmondCounty, those five men, saw something in me and gave me a chance,” she says. “They voted unanimously and gave me that opportunity, and I knew then that I was really going to work hard and make this successful. They gave me the chance, and I wasn’t going to let them down.”
While the commissioners may have been unanimous in their early support, not everyone was.
“There had been some things in the paper about that position – ‘We understand there’s a lady who has some experience, but what the department really needs is an Emergency Chief,’” she remembers. “Those words in the paper 36 years ago still ring in my head, so I think I always tried harder and worked harder because there were doubts about somebody being so young.”
When Tucker came to ColumbiaCounty in 1999, she basically had to start from scratch. The only piece of technology in her office when she moved in was a phone.
“So we literally grew this EMA program from the ground up in the last 15 years into one of the best in the state,” she says.
Given the fact she spends most of her time planning for disasters – when she started it was all about nuclear war, then they added natural disasters and chemical preparedness and school violence and terrorism – you’d think she wouldn’t be able to relax, but she says that’s not a problem, especially not with the new grandchild.
“I have spent every single weekend with her since the ice storm,” she says. “They come on Friday when I get home from work and stay until Saturday at 5:00. That gives me Friday night and all day Saturday with the baby, then Sunday I do my housework. Then I’m right back to work.”
After 36 years, Tucker says it’s hard to imagine not looking after the county.
“If I ever retire, the hardest thing for me is going to be not automatically dressing to go deal with something when it happens, because it’s all I’ve ever known.”