Safety of the public is more than a job to EMA’s Elfer

Published 10:17 am Monday, October 3, 2016

For Warren County’s emergency management director, public safety and emergency preparation is more than a job.

“I’ve got a passion to help and serve the public and make sure the people stay safe, and prevent damage,” said county EMA Director John Elfer, “And that’s what we do every day.”

Elfer has been the county’s emergency management director for the past five years, taking the position toward the end of the 2011 spring Mississippi River flood, which reached 57.1 feet in Vicksburg — nine-tenths of a foot higher than the 1927 flood.

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A native of Fayetteville, Ga., he served 18 years as a sheriff’s deputy — 13 of those with the Warren County Sheriff’s Office. He has a degree in criminal justice from the University of Southern Mississippi and spent 11 years in the Mississippi National Guard as a military police captain with the Mississippi National Guard’s 31st Rear Operations Unit. He is an Iraq War veteran and a Hurricane Katrina survivor.

He credits his experience in Katrina with preparing him for his role as EMA director.

“I was deployed to the coast prior to Hurricane Katrina when I was with the National Guard, and worked with Harrison County Emergency management,” he said. “We rode that storm out at the (Harrison County) EOC (emergency operations center). Our unit was deployed to the coast to help each emergency management agency director with coordinating assets from the National Guard.”

After returning from the coast in October 2005, Elfer returned to Harrison County at the request of the Harrison County coroner and served as the coroner’s logistics chief for about a month working with the coroner’s office.

“The mission down there was all that debris had to be moved and we had spotters who made sure they weren’t picking people up,” he said.

“That’s where I got my emergency management experience,” Elfer said. “I already knew the ins and outs about law enforcement and emergency response as someone in the field, but really, that’s where I was exposed to how EMA and the emergency management functions really work. I learned a lot down there.”

He applied for the director’s job “because I wanted a change, and I really wanted a position where I could really make more of a difference.”

“I loved being a deputy sheriff and I had a good career doing that, but I just wanted to do something different and be in a position where we could enhance our emergency response by working and coordinating all kinds of different functions. I still get to be around my law enforcement folks, but really, we get to do so much more, now.”

Since taking over as emergency management director, Elfer said the local agency has made “a lot of improvements” in emergency management.

“We’ve made a lot of improvements in our local law enforcement, fire, EMS and emergency response. We’ve been able to get this community storm-ready certified with the National Weather service. We’ve worked with our local elected officials to purchase some equipment, and implement emergency alert notification programs like Code Red, which has been a big success, and we’ve developed a lot of close relationships with our state and federal partners.”

Elfer said the county’s emergency management agency does not take overall command of a response when an emergency hits.

“We don’t tell people how to run their agency,” he said. “If it’s a multiple agency required response, we help facilitate and make sure the incident command system is utilized so everybody understands what everybody else is doing.

“We are here to make sure everybody’s working together and they get the stuff they need. All requests for outside assets (assistance) come through this office, like MEMA (Mississippi Emergency Management) assistance. We coordinate that with MEMA. If it’s large enough, we’re going to coordinate with MEMA and they’ll coordinate it with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency).”

He said the county EMA is like a one-stop shop.

“Rather than having every different agency try to communicate with the state, it all comes through here. We find out the needs and we ask for it, and we track that and we get reimbursed at the end of whatever event it is. We don’t duplicate services. If we need something, we make sure what we’re asking for is appropriate. We’re also here to help document activities.”

He said it’s sometimes frustrating when there is an emergency that may not necessarily meet the criteria for a disaster declaration and officials have to try and get expenses for the incident reimbursed.

Going back to when he was hired, he said the experience with the 2011 flood helped teach local officials to work better with state and federal officials, “And we were much better prepared for the 2015 winter flood. The 2011 flood was a big event and I learned a lot personally from the flood.”

“When you live on the river, you expect flooding, but the 57 feet we had in 2005 or the 50 feet we had in January.”

He said one advantage to dealing with floods is the accurate forecasting from the National Weather Service. “We were able to prepare we know much more ahead of time than we know with a flash flood.”

Working with city Community Development Director Victor Grey-Lewis, he said, has resulted in the development of a Vicksburg-Warren County flood manual, “So we now  have a reference book. I think success for me personally was all the relationships we developed, and how well we worked with the city and all the departments and the media, all of my staff is public affairs officer trained. We try to be proactive and share what’s going on.”

Elfer said emergency development is “the best job I’ve ever had, and I get to meet a lot of people. We get to experience a lot of activities. It’s always tragic when we have somebody affected by a storm or some man-made hazard, where we have injuries or death, because that’s something we don’t like to experience, but that’s all part of it.”

“I’m going to hang on (to the position) until I don’t want to do it any more,” he said. “I like Warren County. It’s home and the people here have been good to me, my bosses have been good to me, and all of our people have a good relationship, and I want to continue that.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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