Jefferson County residents, here’s how to prepare for a crisis—5 steps that could save your life

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Fultondale tornado
When disaster strikes Jefferson County EMA is there. Photo via Jefferson County EMA

You’ve no doubt heard of FEMA, but did you know Jefferson County, Alabama has our own Emergency Management Agency? Not only do they coordinate local disaster-response efforts, but they do a lot to work with residents long before a crisis to help everyone stay safe. We talked with Melissa Sizemore, Emergency Management Officer at Jefferson County EMA to find out more. Here’s what we learned.

But first, what is the Jefferson County EMA?

Hazmat
Jefferson County EMA working on a hazmat situation. (Jefferson County EMA / Facebook)

Jefferson County EMA is, according to Sizemore, “the first line of official public responsibility for emergency management in the county.” Together with the following groups in the county, they work to save lives and to protect property:

  • Local municipalities
  • Nonprofit organizations
  • Volunteer organizations
  • Private sector

“We get the responders the tools and the equipment they need to be able to protect property and save lives in times of disaster. Then, after the life-saving priorities are taken care of, we work with the state EMA and other partners, including FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) to help with recovery efforts.”

Melissa Sizemore, Emergency Management Officer, Jefferson County EMA

Lest you think all they deal with is tornadoes, here’s a list of the types of hazards and events they address:

  • Weather
  • Special events, such as The World Games
  • Technological + man-made hazards
    • Active shooters
    • Bomb threats
    • Terroristic-type issues
    • Technological hazards
      • Utility disruptions
      • Cybersecurity issues
      • Hazmat incidents related to transportation 
      • Fixed facility hazmat, e.g. manufacturing facilities

“Everyone thinks of us as the tornado people, but our wingspan is so much bigger than just the weather. I like to explain emergency management as different parts of a circus, and we’re the ‘ringmasters of disaster.’” 

Melissa Sizemore, Emergency Management Officer, Jefferson County EMA

Emergency management starts with us—what you need to do

Everybody thinks it won’t happen to them. Then a tornado hits your neighborhood, a tree falls on your house, a flash flood makes the road you’re on impassible, or something else unexpected turns your world upside down. Sizemore stressed that emergency management actually starts with all of us. Here’s what you need to do to be prepared.

1. Have good sources of info so you can make an accurate risk assessment

Jefferson County EMA
Like the Scouts say, Be Prepared. (Jefferson County EMA / Facebook)

Plug in to trusted sources of information so you can make the best choices about how to respond in hazardous conditions.

Follow Jefferson County EMA on social: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Website
24-hour phone: (205) 254-2039

2. Keep essential paperwork, including insurance information, in 2-3 places

Sizemore recommended keeping essential paperwork, including your insurance information, in 2-3 key places so it’s easy to access if you’re heavily impacted by a disaster.

  • Electronic copies in the cloud
  • Physical papers in a fire safe
  • An external hard drive in your emergency disaster kit

If this information is close at hand, you’ll be able to start thinking about moving forward and rebuilding after an adverse event. 

3. Sign up for free alerts

Jefferson County EMA
Sign up for alerts today. (Jefferson County EMA / Facebook)

Jefferson County EMA offers a free, fully-customizable emergency notification system through Everbridge. Here’s how you sign up:

  • Go to jeffcoema.org.
  • Click on the big red “Sign up for Everbridge Emergency Alerts” button.
  • Pick which alerts you want to receive (for example tornado or flash flood warnings or watches)—you can choose multiple addresses, for example home, work, your kids’ schools.
  • Pick how you’d like to receive alerts (e.g. call to land line, text cell phone, emails, etc.).

4. Be prepared for severe weather

Byington
Are you ready for possible severe weather? I’ve got my helmets and basement ready. (Pat Byington / Bham Now)
  • Everbridge Emergency Alerts: If any of the locations you’ve registered are within a polygon (meaning, the area most likely to be affected by the severe weather) when a warning is issued, Everbridge will call and text your phone to alert you. 
  • Weather Radio: Have one at home—they’re loud, they’ll wake you up and they could save your life.
  • Wireless emergency alerts: make sure these are enabled on your phone, too. 
  • Twitter: Follow @EMAJeffCoAL on Twitter + enable push notifications during adverse weather events. You can toggle them off at other times if you like.

Whatever’s coming your way, having at least three ways to get alerts will help you and your loved ones stay out of harm’s way. 

A word about outdoor warning sirens: 

  • Jefferson county has 255 outdoor warning sirens.
  • DO NOT use them as your primary means of notification. 
  • DO pay attention to them—if one goes off in your area outside of a regular test time, you’re in the polygon and need to seek shelter immediately. 

5. Look out for Safer Places coming soon to a spot near you

Jefferson County EMA
Jefferson County EMA keeps a running list of storm shelters that are open during severe weather. (Jefferson County EMA / Facebook)

In 2021, the Alabama state legislature passed a law called Safer Places, and Jefferson County EMA has been building their local Safer Places program since the beginning of 2022. 

What it means: If you live in a rural area and the nearest FEMA-rated safe room or tornado shelter is 30-45 minutes away, you may soon be able to take refuge in a sturdier, better-built building closer to your home.

Under this legislation, the following types of places may be designated as Safer Places: 

  • Churches
  • Government facilities
  • Private businesses

Having access to these Safer Places should increase your likelihood of surviving a tornado by providing you with three or four shelter options only 10-15 minutes away. 

Jefferson County EMA is working with local municipalities, nonprofits and more prominent churches and businesses to get them to sign on as a Safer Place. They hope to have some locations in place by the time our spring severe weather season rolls around. 

Once these locations are added to the website, alongside existing storm shelters, you can add this information into your family’s severe weather plans.

Be prepared today with Jefferson County EMA. Visit their website to sign up for Everbridge alerts or find the nearest storm shelter. Put their 24-hour number (205) 254-2039 in your phone and follow them on social: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter.

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Sharron Swain
Sharron Swain

Writer, Interviewer + Adventurer | Telling stories to make a difference

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