Pike County’s emergency management operations are well trained to respond to disasters near and far, according to Civil Defense Director Richard Coghlan.
“We do a lot of planning. We do a lot of exercises,” he told the McComb Exchange Club on Thursday.
Part of Coghlan’s job — in addition to being the coordinator for county volunteer fire departments, the 911 director and solid waste enforcement officer — is leading a local task force affiliated with the Mississippi Department of Homeland Security.
The state has three regional task forces, one each for the northern, central and southern parts of Mississippi. The one based in McComb is Task Force 4 and is responsible for logistics as well as feeding and housing other task force members.
"It's the only one in the Southeast,” Coghlan said.
And it’s been deployed all across the Southeast and beyond, he said.
"During (Hurricane) Michael we set up in the parking lot of the Panama City (Fla.) mall and we were there for nine days,” he said.
The task force also deployed to Florida in response to Hurricane Irma, where it assisted with swiftwater rescue efforts on the St. John’s River south of Jacksonville.
It has also responded to Hurricane Sandy, to Louisville following a tornado and to the crash of a C-130 military plane that claimed the lives of 15 Marines and a sailor.
Coghlan said that type of disaster response is good for two reasons: It keeps local first responders well trained and it keeps Southwest Mississippi in the minds of Coghlan’s emergency management officials elsewhere in case this area needs help recovering from diaster, as it received in the aftermath of the May 9 tornado that hit parts of McComb.
"We've been well received by Florida. ... As a matter of fact, in Michael they requested a team from Mississippi,” he said.
Last week, local emergency management officials participated in the Great American Shake Out, an earthquake drill for areas along the New Madrid fault line — the largest in the nation — where parts of Northwest Mississippi would be affected if a major earthquake were to occur.
"Somebody somewhere along the way believes it's going to happen,” Coghlan said.
He noted that minor temblors are common in that part of the state. A 3.8-magnitude earthquake struck the Delta town of Hollandale in January.
"We keep comprehensive emergency plans,” Coghlan said. "We're going to play tornado later on in the month. If a hurricane comes and something happens or a tornado hits, we've already got a plan in place. We've got a lot of plans so we don't get caught by surprise."
As fire coordinator, Coghlan manages money from insurance rebates and the 21/2-mill tax that each volunteer department receives from the county.
He noted that the Progress and Summit volunteer fire departments recently expanded their territories, which will mean lower fire ratings — and savings on property insurance — for residents who are now included in those fire districts.
As 911 coordinator, Coghlan is part of the commission that manages 911 funds paid on phone bills.
"That's how we are paying for dispatch,” he said. "We've got enough money that we don't need to ask anybody if we need money for our dispatch system."
Coghlan said a newly formed “strike force” headed by former McComb Fire Chief Stephen Adams will consist of 25 volunteer and career firefighters to assist fellow firefighters on call.
“They’re putting this team together to where they can back them up,” Coghlan said. "It's working quite well so far. It's going to be a great success. It's going to be a good help when you have an extended house fire, a search-and-rescue mission.”