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Braving the Elements
A firetruck rolls through the silent and icy streets of Olde Town Conyers on Tuesday night. - photo by Photo by Michelle Kim

As Sunday’s snow hardened this week into a surface a Zamboni operator would be proud of, and as businesses, schools, and government offices shut down, a few agencies braved the ice to keep things running.

For places such as Rockdale Medical Center, Rockdale County Sheriff's Office, Conyers Police Department, the Rockdale County Fire Department, county and city public works departments and local nursing homes, to shut down would mean more than losing revenue; it would mean the possible loss of life.

Rockdale Medical Center relied on the strength of both its planning and employees to maintain the high level patients have come to expect.

Before the storm set in on Sunday night, RMC had a plan in place on where employees would stay, what they had in their food stores and when their employees would come in.

"We were thinking ahead of the curve, such as ‘if this goes on, here’s what we’ll do,’" RMC Chief Operating Officer Deborah Armstrong said. "We knew several days in advance what we could anticipate heading up to the weekend. So we had a lot of conversations with departments leading to critical function with patients."

The Rockdale County Fire Department was fully staffed through the storm, said Deputy Fire Chief Mike Lee. Battalion chiefs started looking at their rosters early on. "We figured out who might be running late or might not be able to get in. We made arrangements to make sure those positions were covered."

In addition to fitting the apparatuses with tractioniers, or a sturdier type of tire chain, they brought two additional engines on duty, one to the north of I-20 and one to the south. During the Sunday-Wednesday span, they answered 102 calls, mostly rescue/EMS calls as well as 9 fires and many fire alarms. Although two engines slipped off the road and had to be hoisted back on, there were no crashes or injuries.

The Conyers Public Works department had crews working around the clock for a total of 280 man-hours just for storm-related activities. The one sand truck ended up spreading about 93 tons of sand.

Conyers Police Chief Gene Wilson said, "We started our planning on that Friday as far as looking at our shifts and making sure they’re fully staffed for patrol and 911 Center and detectives if we needed them."

By Sunday night, officers were on 12-hour shifts. Officers made courtesy runs to essential places such as the 911 center or Remington House. On Monday, as the decision to close I-20 was made, the Special Operations Unit was called in. Although officers did have a few regular calls, for the most part, the activities and calls were storm related.

"Everything else in the city was put on hold," said CPD Capt. Mike Waters.

Early planning was also at the core of the Remington House maintaining its functionality.

"With the emergency plan that we had previously generated we were expecting it," Kristi Carter, Marketing Director of the Remington House said. "Some people packed and stayed Sunday night."

The Remington house also had employees whose husbands had four-wheel drive trucks driving to the store to help supply the 170 meals served there a day.

Once the storm, hit both centers relied on their employees, and RMC went into lockdown not letting employees in or out of the hospital.

Those who were already there went beyond their usual duties to make sure that patients could still be taken care of. Food production worker Pamela Mitchell of RMC’s dining and nutrition department, normally arrives for work on Monday morning at 5:30 a.m., but had arranged for a bed in the Acute Cardiac Unit of the hospital on Sunday night to avoid the treacherous driving conditions.

"That way if no one was going to be there, at least a cook would be there," Mitchell said.

She started her shift preparing breakfast and then stayed on for lunch, ending at 2 p.m. However, with the extenuating circumstances keeping the night shift from coming in, she stayed on to help out again with patients and for the employees and staff.

"They were talking about cooking dinners for them, for about 50 to 75 people," Mitchell said. "I told them I would do the grill like hamburgers and stuff. We started off doing that and I don’t know how many employees came down. It was definitely more than 50.

"It was important to feed the people that are taking care of the sick ones. The patients are the main people we’re here for. You’ve got to feed the people that are functioning on the patients."

National EMS Chief Operating Officer Benny Atkins said the National EMS team did a great job coming together during the storm.

"Everybody worked together as a team and got it handled," he said. "We maintained 100 percent staff of all ambulances." Some employees came in early and stayed the night. Other employees stayed with nearby relatives. Only one was not able to make it in.

National EMS went on 62 calls from Sunday to Wednesday morning, with 47 of them to the hospital. The ambulances themselves – they keep five 24-hour units and two day units – did not get into any accidents. "We did have some crews that walked up long driveways to get to patients. We didn’t have any trucks that got stuck," said Atkins.

Waffle House, one of the few commercial retail businesses that stayed open, did not serve life-or-death function but was a haven for cold and hungry workers and travelers.

"It's Waffle House. We’re always open," said manager Amy Khan at the West Avenue Waffle House, which was busy with truckers and travelers stranded on I-20 during the storm. In order to make sure employees could get to work safely, she and other managers picked up employees and the restaurant rented motel rooms within walking distance where employees could sleep.

"It was a pretty good experience. We were busy, a lot of customers. Everyone that came out was wonderful. Everybody just worked really hard," she said.

In almost every case for businesses staying open during the storm was constant communication and understanding of hard-working employees.

RMC had constant, what Armstrong called "huddles," about what needed to be done in each department.

"The other thing I think we did really well was not to lose communication once this happened," Armstrong said. "We started huddling several times a day so everyone knew what was going on and what was happening."

Chief Wilson said of the cooperation he found throughout the county, "I was real pleased with the community spirit I saw during the ice storm. For the most part, people understood about I-20 and we were doing all that we could to get it open."

Throughout all the snow and ice that had made it dangerous to travel, the places that the community of Rockdale needed to stay open did thanks to planning from managers and the above and beyond carrying out of those plans and actions by its employees.

"That’s one good thing about having a small community is that you preserve camaraderie," Armstrong said. "Everyone here said how it turned into a really good team building experience."