The Hawkins County Commission was scheduled Monday to consider the appointment of Robert Turner for the position. Turner was chosen from about 12 applicants by County Mayor Crockett Lee.
Commissioner Robert Palmer introduced the resolution confirming Turner's appointment. But Palmer also made an amendment to that resolution calling for the commission to adopt the same hiring guidelines for a local EMA director that are currently listed in the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) local officials handbook.
Palmer noted that Turner meets those TEMA guidelines, which call for a person capable of serving as a facilitator and resource officer with experience dealing with federal, state and local agencies. TEMA's guidelines for the local EMA director position do not require experience or training in an emergency-related discipline such as fire, rescue or law enforcement.
Conversely, Hawkins County's EMA director hiring guidelines, which were adopted by the County Commission in 2003, require that the EMA director have at least 10 years of experience in an emergency responder position.
After Palmer made a motion for his amendment, Commissioner Virgil Mallet moved for an amendment to the amendment. Mallett's amendment called for the commission's Public Safety Committee to meet and adopt a set of hiring guidelines taking into consideration the TEMA guidelines as well as the existing county guidelines.
Following a lengthy discussion, that second amendment was approved by a vote of 20-1.
At the recommendation of County Attorney Jim Phillips, the vote on Turner's appointment was postponed pending the establishment of the new guidelines. Phillips said the county can't hire an EMA director without having hiring guidelines in place.
No one has questioned Turner's competency or ability to serve as a good administrator for county emergency agencies. But there has been some concern expressed by emergency responders in the county and some commissioners regarding Turner's lack of training and experience in emergency-related fields.
Prior to the vote Monday, TEMA Eastern Region Director Gary Ellis addressed the commission regarding what his agency expects from a county EMA director. He said the county EMA director is primarily an administrator who seeks grant funds and keeps state-required paperwork up to date.
"He does the county's administration of the county's emergency management program, which is a requirement of Tennessee code," Ellis said. "They are not first responders."
Ellis added, "That EMA director is available to provide assistance, to provide contacts to resources, especially if it's a really big incident and resources are needed outside the county. They're the people who have the contacts to provide resources from the state and federal government by letting those in the chain know there's a problem."
Ellis also stressed the importance of appointing a permanent EMA director as soon as possible, as is required to make the county eligible for federal pass-through funding for local emergency agencies. Ellis said the county is currently not in compliance and may at some point be removed from that funding program.
Lee has stated that he chose Turner based on his experience dealing with the federal government as a contractor and his knowledge of grants and obtaining grant funding. Turner has vowed to begin emergency training upon his appointment.
But Commissioner Fred Montgomery, who sits on the Public Safety Committee, echoed some of the concerns expressed recently by county emergency responders.
"In my opinion it would take many months - maybe more than a year - to train an individual for a minimum amount of experience and training for an emergency situation," Montgomery said. "I've always felt that in order to exercise supervision over a group in an emergency situation, one of the first requirements would be to be aware of what they're doing, what they need to do, and what's necessary to do the job. That's the only problem I have with the current appointment."