EMA leaders prepare for disasters


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URBANA — When severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, floods, ice storms or blizzards threaten Champaign County, two military veterans are ready to provide leadership to respond to emergency situations and protect lives and property.

John Dwyer of St. Joseph took over as Champaign County Emergency Management Agency coordinator around Memorial Day, with Bill James of St. Joseph joining him as deputy coordinator this month.

The two help develop local disaster plans throughout the year.

Dwyer and James coordinate the local disaster response and recovery, which includes working with storm trackers, emergency responders, governmental bodies and public works crews.

Both men come to their positions from military backgrounds.

Dwyer, 38, describes himself as a lifelong military man.

"My father was in the Air Force, and my grandfather was a retired naval officer in World War II," he said.

After growing up in Virginia, Dwyer graduated from Virginia Military Institute in 1996, where he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force.

Dwyer specialized in support services with the Air Force, doing everything from making sure people got fed to mortuary services.

When Dwyer was sent to Kuwait as part of Operation Southern Watch in 1998, he helped handle visits by distinguished visitors from the United States to their Kuwaiti counterparts.

He also helped inventory and process personal belongings of people killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and made sure the belongings reached the next of kin.

Dwyer is still active with the military as a lieutenant colonel in the Illinois Air Guard.

Before he was handed the keys to the county's civil defense headquarters in Urbana, Dwyer worked for Champaign-Urbana Public Health District as an emergency response planner, where he helped plan for responses to potential biological disasters and applied for grants with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

When the H1N1 pandemic threatened to sweep the nation a few years ago, Dwyer coordinated efforts to inoculate as many county residents as possible.

In November 2009, the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District helped get 1,986 people vaccinated for the H1N1 virus in a mere six hours in the area's first public clinic for adults.

In 2011, Dwyer became deputy director for Champaign County EMA, and Sheriff Dan Walsh appointed him to the top post in May.

James, 58, served as an officer in the U.S. Army infantry from 1976 to 1985, stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., and later Germany.

Following his career in the Army, James was hired as an emergency planner for the Fermilab, a high energy physics laboratory operated for the Department of Energy in Batavia, a post he held for 20 years.

"We didn't have any emergencies, but we planned for various emergencies and planned for responses by various agencies," James said.

He also worked as an emergency planner for Elk Grove Village, an industrial community near O'Hare International Airport.

Whenever Dwyer is out of town, James said he is prepared to manage local emergencies.

"John and I are cut from the same cloth with our military backgrounds to provide the greatest service for the public," James said.

Dwyer says military experience is ideal preparation for a career with the Emergency Management Agency.

"The military teaches a person to always be prepared for the next thing," Dwyer said. "The Air Force is always two steps ahead, and it teaches a person it is better to be proactive than reactive. That's what we are doing here in Champaign County."

When the skies are clear, Dwyer and James find themselves in planning mode.

They work on developing an emergency operations plan for the county and often do outreach work with communities so people know what to do in times of inclement weather.

Dwyer also works with businesses and local responders across Champaign County to help them develop their individual disaster plans.

"We keep records of hazardous materials on hand at various factories around the county," Dwyer said.

Dwyer has recently been active in developing the county's new search-and-rescue team.

"If someone is lost, we bring in our team to help locate that individual," Dwyer said.

While 30 people have signed up for the team so far, Dwyer said he can always use more.

Anyone interested in becoming part of the search-and-rescue team, can download the application from the website http://www.champaigncountyema.org, Dwyer said.

Dwyer and James work with a team of 10 storm spotters and keep in contact with emergency services representatives from individual village and cities.

"When there is a thunderstorm watch, we get on the radio and monitor the progress of the storm," Dwyer said. "We watch the radar and get feedback from various towns. We also make contact with the Weather Service."

Sometimes an unexpected storm pops up so quickly, Dwyer doesn't have time to reach the headquarters in Urbana.

He said he often sends out alerts and text messages to emergency response people  about an approaching or impending storm.

"Sometimes the watches and warnings can happen so quickly," he said.

Dwyer is responsible for making decisions on where tornado sirens should be sounded in Champaign, Urbana, Savoy and the University of Illinois.

He said officials in the outlying communities make their own decisions as to when to sound their tornado sirens, but he gives advice when they ask for it.

Since major interstate highways and railroads cross Champaign County, Dwyer and James research hazardous materials that are carried on them in order to be ready in case the materials spill.

When a storm causes damage, Dwyer and James communicate with local public works departments to help them effectively respond to floods, snowstorms, downed bridges, etc.

Dwyer said the most scary storm he has experienced happened in May 2012, when sudden funnel clouds kept moving up and down near communities south of Champaign-Urbana at a time schools normally were getting ready to dismiss students.

While the individual school districts make their own decisions on dismissing students, Dwyer said he can advise them.

"Sometimes we call the schools about what they should do and provide them with advice," Dwyer said.

Dwyer said there were relatively few storm emergencies in 2012 due to the drought. He said he has already activate emergency operations five times in 2013.

"I love this job because I can make a difference," Dwyer said. "I like helping people and serving people. That's one thing I miss from being in active duty."


Tim Mitchell is a reporter at The News-Gazette. His email is tmitchel@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@mitchell6).