Elmore County EMA director Keith Barnett is a proponent of Elmore County’s Safer Place Program and looking to expand the number of locations that can provide immediate protection from harsh weather.

“We are at 20 locations in the county,” Barnett said. “There is a church in the Titus area where we have already done the inspection. All we are waiting on is to sign the final paperwork. We are really probably closer to 21 than 20.”

He indicated he would prefer the program has enough participating locations so no one would have to drive longer than 10 minutes to find shelter.

“We have looked at the areas around Deatsville and a couple areas toward Kowaliga where we could use more coverage in those areas,” Barnett said. “It’s going to be the matter of us trying to work with those areas and identify some entities to come into the program. I’d love to have a handful more by the end of the year.

But he said the group is not quite there yet.

“Autauga County does not have a safer places program,” Barnett said. “I know for a fact some Autauga County residents have driven to Elmore County during storm events. We feel like the program here is strong. We’ve worked with our legal advisors in the county and it’s understood and our disclaimers and our paperwork defines what this is.”

According to Barnett, some counties do not offer this program due to legalities. “There are counties that have concerns if they are covered legally,” he said. “The State of Alabama has a law that provides protection for volunteers and a law that provides protection during a disaster that will let people come in. The difference here is when we are looking at a storm moving through — it’s not a disaster yet, it could be in 10 minutes. These buildings are not shelters; the buildings are safer places. There are some places and some businesses that don’t want to have a program without some more coverage for being a helping hand.”

Barnett said the Association of County Commissions of Alabama and the Alabama Association of Emergency Managers want to better define state laws as they relate to safe places.

Barnett said any business or entity interested in participating in the program goes through a site inspection.

“We go out and look around the facilities,” he said. “Using guidelines from (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the National Weather Service, we look for those type areas that is an inner room or a room with no or few windows or a basement. We are looking for some type of a room that’s centralized and can hold a number of people. We will try to identify the safest room in that structure.”

Once a location is deemed a safe place, the address and facility information is added to the county EMA safe place found online.

“We ask that they are added to a call list so if bad weather is coming through we reach out a day in advance to warn them and ask if they think they can open,” he said.

The link to the map can be found at elmorecoema.com on the safer places program page under the preparedness heading. 

The map has pins showing the location of facilities participating in the program.

“The pins on the map are red when the places are closed,” he said. “When we activate them and they open, the pins turn to green. You can click on the pin and it will open up details like address, if the place is handicapped accessible or pet friendly. We try to give as much information as we can. I advise to go look at the map now so people are familiar with the locations.”

Safe places could also open in any type of inclement weather, Barnett said.

“Not only high-wind events, we can activate them in flooding situations and winter weather,” he said.