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County coordinator fires off complaint

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County coordinator fires off complaint
Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

During the height of the tornado chaos June 6, county coordinator Jack Paul fired off a frustrated e-mail to some county employees, county officials and the Bemidji Pioneer complaining about a lack of warning by emergency personnel.

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Now county commissioners and department heads are embroiled in a dispute over whether Paul's e-mail warrants disciplinary action - and how the public should be notified in the next disaster.

Paul's detractors say he overstepped his bounds, circumvented departmental channels and exposed the county to potential liability by airing his concerns before they were addressed internally.

His communiqué suggests that emergency personnel might have been dilatory in failing to notify county employees - and the public - of impending storms when funnel clouds were swirling around.

"When PR got the warning, the tornado was already passed (sic) PR and between Pickerel Lake and the Emmaville area," Paul's e-mail asserts. "What info was provided was AFTER the tornado had passed onto the north."

Paul, on Wednesday, characterized his comments as "innocuous" and said some emergency responders took them too personally.

"They think I did this deliberately," he said of the e-mail that notified the media. "I didn't." He said he's tried to contact Hubbard County Sheriff Gary Mills to explain it but hasn't been able to reach him.

The e-mail repeated comments Paul made Monday, complaining in an interview that the courthouse employees couldn't hear civil defense sirens inside the building and should have been notified to take cover.

He told recipients of the e-mail that when his office hears of any future tornados, warning sirens will immediately be sounded on his order.

Paul denied that the timing of his e-mail might appear inappropriate, sent when law enforcement personnel were up to their eyeballs in disaster calls, searches for missing people and reports of property damage coming in at a breakneck pace. They were swamped.

"No, I don't think it was inappropriate at all," Paul said.

His actions clearly rankled Mills, who declined to discuss the matter.

County employees said Paul had a peripheral role in drafting the county's emergency preparedness plan, which does not require emergency personnel swamped during natural disasters, to start making calls to affected entities.

That's what radio stations are for. And Paul's suggestion that he has the authority to sound warning sirens runs counter to the procedures spelled out in the emergency plan and concerns emergency personnel who strictly follow protocol during disasters.

Hubbard County board chair Cal Johannsen confirmed that commissioners were looking at disciplinary measures against Paul, but said he couldn't discuss it further because pending personnel matters are not public information until some formal action has been taken.

No such action has been taken, Johannsen said Wednesday morning. "Yes, we're looking into it but that's about all I can say," Johannsen said. "I talked to him a little bit yesterday about it and kind of got an explanation of what's going on."

Commissioner Donald "Doc" Carlson declined comment, saying, "I know of no disciplinary action that will take place but I don't think Jack did anything wrong."

Paul said he mistakenly notified the Bemidji newspaper when e-mail groups imported from his old computer last week were somehow jumbled up during the data transfer.

He has numerous groups he regularly e-mails and simply calls up the group on his computer, then hits his "send" button to include them all in a communication.

Somehow a glitch occurred when technology personnel transferred data from his old laptop onto his new model, he explained. The Bemidji newspaper got included in Paul's "department heads" e-mail group.

Commissioner Lyle Robinson said the e-mail has revived a long-running dispute between Paul and law enforcement officers. Paul in the past has questioned various expenditures and procedures by the sheriff's department, jail and emergency responders.

'To me it's all personalities," Robinson said. "He's the personnel director. He's supposed to be protecting the personnel at the courthouse."

Robinson said the dispute erupted during a "slow news day" for the Pioneer.

Paul said the media "shouldn't air our dirty laundry. You guys just do that to sell newspapers."

Robinson said the media should instead focus on the larger picture. "I think the sheriff is doing a heck of a good job," he said. "I think we were very fortunate that the disaster we had is really on a relatively small scale and it didn't involve death and injuries, ambulances and hospitals... It's a great training exercise now that we've had it. We need to learn from it."

Robinson maintains that just because an employee questions procedures isn't grounds for disciplinary action.

Johannsen said in his travels through the county since the tornado, he's heard only praise for Mills and his staff for their quick, efficient and compassionate response.

Mills and his chief deputy, Frank Homer, said Monday the public doesn't understand the intricate procedures law enforcement personnel have to follow before sounding civil defense sirens. In an ideal world, notification should be a simple thing. In reality, it isn't.

"We can't just sound the alarm when Joe Sixpack calls in a tornado," Homer said. "Do you know how many false alarms would be coming in?"

It takes a siting - and a confirmation - by either the National Weather Service (NWS), a weather-service affiliated radio station or trained law enforcement personnel to trigger the alarms. The emergency plan would not allow people such as Paul to order sirens to be sounded.

"Just because we have this plan to save the world doesn't mean that we can't use common sense," Robinson said. "I think we all need to get some rest we need to sit down and figure out what we can do better in the next disaster - not that we didn't do things as well as we could this time."

Law enforcement personnel maintain they regularly update area radio stations with information to keep residents safe - and did so June 6.

"I was driving back from Brainerd and had a police radio, a scanner, a beeper and my cell phone," Homer said. "You know where I got my information? From the (AM) radio station."

Tornados took out phone lines connected to the NWS transmitter on Portage Lake, knocking it off the air. Law enforcement personnel also were hampered when their repeater frequency was taken off the air in the storm, silencing patrol car radios and internal communications.

Paul understands that emergency dispatchers don't have time to notify businesses, schools, hospitals and others affected by an impending storm. But he suggests that deputies with emergency notification beepers could keep county employees abreast of developments.

Or, he suggests, an e-mail system could be implemented to notify various groups.

That could be a tough sell in light of the tempest his e-mail caused.

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