Photo: Interim EMA Director Josh Tanner (Emma Kirkemier/Messenger)
By Emma Kirkemier, News Editor
The Gadsden/Etowah County Emergency Management Agency is constantly working to keep local citizens safe and alert with initiatives like the AlertEtowah program, the Shelter Etowah online resource and the release of the Gadsden Etowah County EMA app. The EMA’s newest project is the free distribution of NOAA Weather Radios.
While giving out weather radios is not a new project for the EMA, it will be on a larger scale than usual.
“It’s actually been about 10 years since the last time we did something of this size,” said Gadsden/Etowah EMA Interim Director Josh Tanner. “We are hopeful that we’re going to be able to [distribute] somewhere around 10,000. We have some wonderful partners joining with us, and we’ll be able to share more about that as the weather radios are ordered.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, has a nationwide network of radio stations that continuously broadcast weather information from local offices of the National Weather Service.
The NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards Network, or NWR, retains exclusive use of several public service band frequencies between 162.400 and 162.550 MHz. For local broadcasts and alerts, Etowah County citizens can tune into 162.425 and 162.475 — stations WNG606 and KIH60, respectively. See weather.gov/nwr for more details.
“Our goal is to make sure that those who are socioeconomically distressed are safe and make sure that they have a way to hear the warnings,” Tanner explained. “The smartphones and smartwatches and smart devices are all great and wonderful, but even as far as we’ve come with them, they’re prone to not operate exactly like you thought they were going to. The entire cell phone system locks up because everybody’s trying to get warnings or watches at the same time. We really encourage folks to take advantage of the weather radios, and that should be the baseline at home, at work, at church.”
While the EMA app and other online services provide warnings and alerts, Tanner stressed that weather radios are by far the best resource in a crisis.
“We’re hopeful that we can focus on those that are socioeconomically distressed and our senior citizen population, because they’re very often the ones who say they didn’t have any warning, they didn’t have any lead time,” Tanner said. “It’s not that they didn’t have any warning or any lead time; they didn’t have a way to hear the alert because they just can’t afford it.”
According to the EMA, weather radios are a must in every household, but at $20-30 apiece, the cost can be prohibitive for many.
“That’s the cost of a prescription,” Tanner said. “Folks have to decide, ‘Do I get my heart medicine, or do I spend it and get a weather radio?’ We’ve been very fortunate that we could buy these in bulk, and we’re going to be giving them out all through the remainder of this year.”
Partnering with the EMA to purchase weather radios are Academy Sports, the Dre Kirkpatrick Foundation, NWS Birmingham and the Etowah County Extension Service.
The Gadsden/Etowah EMA will provide more details on the giveaways, including how to get a weather radio and how to program it, as the radios arrive. Anyone who receives a weather radio or who already has one may bring it to the EMA office at City Hall to be programmed by emergency managers.
Longtime EMA Director Deborah Gaither recently stepped down from her position to begin her retirement, leaving Tanner as City of Gadsden Mayor Craig Ford’s appointee to fill the spot until the city hires a permanent director.
“I’m just very proud and appreciative of the level of trust that the mayor has in my abilities to do this position,” Tanner said. “Whether it’s for interim or whether it’s for longer than that, I want to make whatever time (impactful). Whatever positive I can do while I’m here, that’s what I want to do.”
Tanner has worked at the Gadsden/Etowah EMA since 2016, but his entire career in public safety spans 28 years. Tanner worked as a volunteer firefighter for Hokes Bluff, an emergency medical technician with several ambulance services, a career firefighter for the Anniston Fire Department, a vocational minister and an American Red Cross emergency operations specialist before landing a spot at the EMA.
“I had always wanted an emergency management job,” he said. “I still come to work every day excited and looking for those opportunities to partner with other agencies or other public safety folks in the local community to try to, as I said, leave things a little bit better than they were when you found them.”
Leaving things better than you found them is what Tanner loves most about his job. While it seems bleak to be constantly “meeting people on the absolute worst day of their lives,” Tanner said that doing so presents a unique opportunity to make a positive impact.
“Everybody can influence how others face a situation,” he said. “When I am sent out to a disaster area, whether it be in Selma or in Etowah County, I go in knowing that this individual that we’re going to be helping is facing their worst day ever. And if you love on people enough, sometimes that’s all they need.
“I don’t look at it as their worst day. I look at it like it’s an opportunity for me to provide some measure of comfort and compassion and empathy where there currently is none. That takes the form sometimes of just listening to somebody talk (or) giving somebody a hug, or it’s involved as helping rebuild a roof or a front porch. There are many ways that people can impact their communities in a positive way, and you don’t have to have special skills.”
Public safety seems to be the Tanner family profession, with Tanner as EMA Director, his wife Kim working as a nurse, their son Chase serving as a firefighter and their daughter Allie studying criminal justice at the University of Alabama.
“There’s so many opportunities out there to make a difference, but you have to be looking for them sometimes,” Tanner said. “I have the best job in the world, because I have the opportunity to help protect 106,693 citizens (of Etowah County). That’s a responsibility that I take very seriously.”
Tanner mentioned that he had no idea he would be selected as interim director — or even that Gaither was retiring — until the very staff meeting in which the replacement was announced.
His personal friend Gadsden Fire Chief Wil Reed joked that with the shock on Tanner’s face, it “looked like you had won the lottery, but you didn’t know why.”
All the employees of the EMA are currently quite busy moving their office out of its location of the last several years on Airport Road and back into the basement of City Hall.
“We’re very excited to be able to move back home, because that’s the only emergency operations center that I’ve ever worked a disaster in,” Tanner said. “When things are on the line and you’ve got to have situational awareness of what’s going on and make a decision, it’s best to be in a place where you are comfortable and familiar with.”
He noted that the central location is ideal for emergency response, “literally a stone’s throw away” from the city’s dispatch, fire and police departments.
“That’s one thing I’m so thankful for about this new administration of the city,” Tanner said. “They have hit the ground running, and the number of good things that are going on amaze me. It’s refreshing to see my hometown be in such a positive place for the first time in a number of years.”