The county’s newly hired emergency management coordinator said Aug. 5 that he plans to move the county’s COVID-19 Emergency Operations Center out of the Grant County Regional Airport and into the Office of Emergency Management at the L building on Main Street.
Paul Gray, who took over the department Aug. 3, said the coronavirus is a “public health issue” and that he is looking to develop a “unified command” between the health department and the county.
“We will not be running (the EOC) the way it was before,” Gray said.
In addition to moving the EOC to the L building, Gray said the staff would consist of himself and a yet-to-be-named EOC manager, and volunteers if he sees a need.
Gray said, as Harney County’s emergency management coordinator, a post he held for three years, the department spent less than $10,000 on its COVID-19 response.
He said Harney’s EOC operated with a skeleton crew that consisted of him, a 911 dispatcher who came in on her days off and a volunteer who came and helped distribute personal protective equipment to the community.
“I’m not looking at having a mass amount of people working under me unless we have a major disaster,” Gray said. “This (COVID-19) is still a disaster, but it’s not to the point where I need more people there than I need. I’m not just going to throw people in just to have people there.”
Grant County’s EOC had as many as 12 full-time and part-time employees, with some working overtime, costing the county more than $100,000 in personnel costs alone in 12 weeks, from March through May.
The county’s EOC faced community-wide scrutiny in June for overspending its $125,000 budget by almost $75,000.
Since then, the former EOC incident commander and interim emergency manager Dave Dobler resigned, and the EOC staff went from a team of 12 to two.
Grant County Commissioner and EOC liaison Jim Hamsher said in July the remaining EOC staffers worked remotely and on an on-call basis and that the court would be leaving decisions regarding the EOC’s future to the new emergency management coordinator. At the time, the staff consisted of Deputy Incident Commander Chris Rushing and Logistics Manager Seth Klingbeil.
Gray, who helped Dobler write the county’s pandemic plan in March, said he recognizes part of his job will be to earn the community’s trust when it comes to emergency management.
“I know how incident command should work, and I know that it’s not been necessarily working the right way there in Grant County, and that’s one reason they have me here,” he said.
Gray, a state-certified Incident Command System instructor, said he has 20 years of Federal Emergency Management Administration experience.
Gray, a veteran, said he was Harney County’s Community Emergency Response Team instructor, and after COVID-19, he plans to bring emergency response classes to the county’s first responders and citizens.
“I’m going to be building up a team, not just of our first responders but of some volunteers like residents who want to help, and bringing them, bringing the residents into emergency management so that they are there helping us,” he said. “This is not something that we just shut the door and keep behind closed doors and nobody sees what we’re doing.”
Gray said he will be working with public health immediately.
“They’re going to be my main people to deal with because this is a medical issue,” Gray said. “They’re the public health officials. We need to work with them so that we protect as many people as we can.”
Gray said he bases his approach to emergency management and public safety on protecting lives, property and the environment — in that order.
“Number one is always going to be life so I need to protect as many people as possible,” he said. “Now COVID is not necessarily affecting the environment or anything else so I’m not too worried about that, but I am worried about people and their jobs and everything else.”
He said he recognizes closing businesses hurts the community as a whole, and there needs to be “give on both sides” in how the local officials approach responding to the pandemic.
He said there are parallels to the 1918 Spanish flu and the coronavirus pandemic. Both COVID-19 and the Spanish flu, Gray said, started with low mortality rates, but the number of cases and deaths ticked up.
“I’m not saying this is the Spanish flu”, he said. “It could be something that is not as bad, but it’s still moving forward.”
He said it is a disease researchers are still learning about, and until they know more, he has to take it seriously and let public health take the lead.
As the county saw the start of fire season in the area, Grant County Regional Airport Manager Haley Walker said aviation — not just fire crews, but aviation as a whole — has picked up considerably and that the day-to-day operations of the airport would be difficult alongside the EOC.
She said the EOC, with staff working remote and rarely, if at all, coming into the airport terminal does not conflict with the aviation activity.
Walker said the lightning storms are not just igniting fires, they have also prompted pilots to land at the airport and rest in the terminal until the storms blow over.
She said there is more going on at the airport than just fire crews responding to fires.
Meanwhile, Gray said he has been going through the county’s emergency plan and said ultimately his plan is to shorten, simplify and condense the emergency plan to a 50-page book that fits in an officer or first responder’s back pocket.
“During a flood, they can open it up, and they know what their responsibilities are, instead of having a 555-page-book that nobody ever opens up,” he said.
Gray said he has other plans that include researching grants for the county. In less than year, he said, he wrote roughly $450,000 in grants for Harney County.
“That’s another aspect of me coming up there,” he said. “I know how to write grants.”
Gray said writing plans, grants and working with anything that has to do with public safety is what he “eats, sleeps and breathes.”
“I got in this to help the public, to make sure that everyone is on the same board, so that we could protect as many of the residents as possible,” he said. “I personally treat it like family. Everybody in the community is part of my family, and I want to bring that to Grant County.”