Columbus Fire & EMS' Robert Futrell to head new Homeland Security Council

After severe January storms and icy roads left police and medics without a way to rescue way-laid drivers, it opened a door for a larger conversation on how public safety officials could better pool resources, Columbus Fire & Emergency Medical Services Chief Robert Futrell said.

"We were unable to get to some of the iced-over streets, since we don't have four-wheel drive vehicles," Futrell said. "But the Engineering Department does. We were able to use — not only us, but also the police department — were able to use their vehicles. It helped us get the job done."

That teamwork led Columbus Consolidated Government to restructure their homeland security efforts, leading to the creation of the Homeland Security Council — an estimated 100 person effort to couple existing homeland security tactics with emergency management.

Headed by Futrell, the council will feature representation by seven local agencies: the Hazardous Devices Response Team, the Columbus Police Department, the Muscogee County Marshal's Office, Columbus Fire & EMS, the Muscogee County Sheriff's Office and the City Manager's Office. It will also include three subcommittees and will consult with private and public sectors, such as Columbus Water Works, Georgia Power, Fort Benning and TSYS.

Futrell, a 33-year veteran of Columbus Fire & EMS, has security secret clearance through the U.S. Department of Defense and is certified in Homeland Security Level 5.

The council, announced Monday by Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, aims to bring Columbus in line with federal and state structures. Tomlinson said federal and state agencies have largely consolidated those public safety efforts to ease problems caused by lack of communication.

"After Sept. 11, 2001, both at the federal level and the state level, they created Homeland Security and pulled it away from emergency management," Tomlinson said. "We've had some nationally and state-wide dropped balls because of that, such as (Hurricane Katrina)."

A primary motivation for the council lies in broadening the understanding of homeland security, Tomlinson said. Presently, Columbus Homeland Security primarily responds to hazardous devices. This could leave the city weakened in the event of other catastrophes, such as contaminated water or electronic viruses.

"If homeland security for years has been primarily focused on hazardous devices, and you have a contamination of the water supply, has your muscle atrophied to deal with that situation?" Tomlinson said. "I think you'll see us flexing and exercising all of our muscles and keeping in shape with anything that might involve the community."

Officials say the Critical Infrastructure Committee will provide one of the most crucial functions of the council — ensuring crucial structures in Columbus continue to operate in cases of man-made and natural emergencies.

"It's going to be made up of the business community, public safety, public health," Futrell said. "That committee is really to help us plan how we can help the citizens and businesses in case of emergencies."

Tomlinson said a second committee in charge of grants will help organize efforts to better fund public safety departments. This, officials hope, will help the city better manage funds and prevent departments from unintentionally applying to similar grants due to lack of communication.

"What's happening now is the individual public safety departments are applying for their own grants, which is great but the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing," she said.

Futrell said the Intelligence Committee will handle sensitive information about the area and help Columbus agencies better communicate with nearby counties.

While Futrell said he is excited about the new opportunity as Homeland Security Director, the council will require team effort and input from multiple sources.

"This is a job that you can't do by yourself. I'm just going to be one spoke in a wheel to make this work," he said. " "We're not looking at just terrorist events, and we're not looking at just weather events, because if you look at it, both of them have about the same response."