Cuprowski moved to Adairsville, where his mother’s family — the Murphys — have resided for four generations. He began with Atlanta Fire Department shortly thereafter, spending 19 years with the agency before retiring Sept. 11 of this year with the rank of battalion chief.
When a tornado struck Adairsville Jan. 30, Cuprowski put the skills and knowledge gained from 19 years in the fire service to use.
“One of my certifications is IMT, which is incident management team certifications which qualifies me to go respond to other places if they needed me. ... Just so happened I live in Adairsville, responding to the tornado in Adairsville, and volunteered about 3 1/2 months up there of my own time to stay there,” he said. “I worked ... on the faith-based side of it at the Adairsville Church of God, so what I did was help give structure to the volunteerism. ... We coordinated with all the churches and all the people that drove up and say, ‘Hey, I want to help.’ We put them to work.”
Former EMA Director Johnny Payne retired in October 2012, leaving Bartow County Fire Chief Craig Millsap to shoulder the duties of both positions. But, the Jan. 30 disaster brought into focus that both positions needed to be filled.
“Coming in, needless to say, we are a little behind because it has been vacant. Chief Millsap did a great job, but he was doing dual roles being the fire chief for Bartow County and being the EMA director. I guess, when you do two roles, something has to, may not be, something’s got to suffer. It wasn’t fair for Chief Millsap, I think, to be in the dual roles,” Cuprowski said. “Then, after the tornado, the commissioner and Peter Olson, the administrator, were actually en route to go over to Floyd County to look at their EOC, emergency operations center, when the alarms went off. So they turned around and got to see firsthand what Chief Millsap had to deal with on both sides — EMA and being fire chief of a county who now has a disaster — and realized they needed to fill that slot.”
Cuprowski, however, wasn’t aware of the EMA opening.
“I heard about it — I didn’t even know there was a position — I wasn’t [in Adairsville] for that. I was there as a neighbor, professionally this is what I do. I just did what I thought was right and stayed there and helped,” he said.
On Sept. 16, five days after his retirement, Cuprowski began his tenure with Bartow County.
One of the first tasks Cuprowski tackled was gathering a list of resources and transforming EMA headquarters on Elizabeth Street in Cartersville into a functioning emergency operations center.
“We have a lot of [resource list] still from the recent tornado, so we are just going to take all of that and bring it over here,” he said. “We are also going to have to come up to speed, up to par on our facilities and that’s in the process of order. ... This is will actually function as an EOC should, so if there is an event, everybody can respond down here and not be at the event itself.”
Training, drills and preplanning — all of which translate from the fire service to emergency management — top the list of priorities in establishing an EOC.
“I don’t want to meet the Georgia Power representative, for example, the first time when it’s a disaster. I would like to know that person or people ... beforehand, not the day of,” Cuprowski said.
Likewise, communication issues rank at the top of Cuprowski’s list of concerns.
“Communication is always an issue. On every event, every state, every city that you ever hear, communication is brought up as a critical factor,” he said. “For example, once the cellphone towers got blown down [in Adairsville], there was no communication via cellphone, and a lot of these towers also hold repeaters for two-way radios, the scanners and all that. And if it doesn’t, they get so jammed up and so bogged down because everyone is using them.”
One area Cuprowski finds enhanced communication is between the county and the faith-based community.
“… We have a fabulous fire department. We already have a standalone EMS department, which does a great job. Sheriff, obviously they are in tune and do a great job as well, but what really sticks out in this community more than I see in other communities is the volunteer- and faith-based organizations,” he said. “They really, really showed up during a time of disaster and made a difference. Police, fire, EMS, we are going to come in for X amount of time and do what we have to do with emergency response, but once the emergency is over with and we know everyone is accounted for and safe and all of your hazards are taken away, i.e. downed power lines and gas leaks and all that, now you’ve got to worry about recovery. ... That’s where your faith-based organizations come in.”
Cuprowski has not been the only one to notice, he said, adding that the state will begin using the model in November to compile a resource list for emergency management agencies across Georgia.
“That’s what I think is a standout difference between this community and a lot of other communities. And it’s really been recognized around the country. It’s been mentioned on CNN and HLN nationwide,” he said. “Just last week we were in class and the head of Georgia Emergency Management [Agency], he mentioned it and said, ‘Look, that’s a model to follow, what they did in Bartow County.’ He didn’t know we were in the room, but he actually mentioned that.”