By Patti Samar
If Pam Baunoch and Becky Mayes are nothing else, they are ready.
Ready and willing to serve, at the drop of a hat, the citizens of St. Clair County.
Baunoch is the Homeland Security Planner for the St. Clair County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department, and Mayes is the office coordinator there.
Together, they have been among the women helping lead the county through the Coronavirus 19 pandemic.
When the Coronavirus 19 pandemic hit St. Clair County in mid-March, the St. Clair County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was activated.
And while the pandemic certainly presented all emergency planning agencies and partners in St. Clair County with new challenges, activation of the EOC for the pandemic was not something unusual for Baunoch or Mayes; the EOC is activated on a regular basis throughout any given year.
The EOC activates during weather-related emergencies such as tornados and flooding; during transportation disasters such as train derailments; and other large-scale incidents that have the potential to endanger the environment such as oil spills, among others.
Both women noted that, during their normal day-to-day work life, they both complete emergency preparedness training regularly.
“Once you know your role, you know what to do,” said Mayes.
“A lot of that just kicks in,” said Baunoch.
Baunoch said that once the EOC was activated for the pandemic, the county emergency planning director determined who needed to be a part of the EOC to help guide the county through this health care emergency.
“We started making a plan and figured out what we needed to do and who we had to get in the EOC,” said Baunoch. “That was when we started contacting the
fire departments, emergency responders, the hospitals, the health department and other departments within the county that needed to be involved.
“We got people in the room who can make decisions.”
While the initial calls were made to front line and first responder agencies, the EOC quickly moved into public information mode and began working with its partner agencies to make sure citizens were kept abreast of COVID 19 activities within the county.
“In the beginning, we were doing updates two times a day,” said Mayes.
“We were doing conference calls with more than 100 people,” said Baunoch.
Keeping up with the ever-changing information regarding COVID 19 and sharing that with both partner agencies and departments, as well as with the public, was one of the most important roles for the EOC.
“We set up a call center to answer all the questions from the public,” said Mayes. “That was staffed by the St. Clair County Health Department. We had to hire interns from SC4 (St. Clair County Community College) to monitor social media to answer the questions on Facebook and to correct misinformation.
“That was really important. There were always questions about the data we were releasing.”
Mayes noted that the questions they received on social media were helpful because they were able to change the way they delivered the information to the public in order to better answer questions the public wanted to know about.
“We’ve changed that several times,” she said. “Then we started doing Facebook Live sessions so that people could get their questions answered right away without any delay.”
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the COVID 19 pandemic is its long term duration.
Baunoch noted: “If a tornado goes through, you go fix the problem and in a week or so, people move on. With the pandemic, there’s no break in it. It’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is constantly ongoing.”
Though Mayes has worked for the county for almost a decade, she has only worked in the Homeland Security and Emergency Planning Department for a year and a half.
Baunoch said she has adapted well to the fast-paced and ever-changing environment.
“Becky knows everything about everything here,” Baunoch said. “She picked it up so fast.”
Mayes noted that she likes to be organized and that she quickly realized the more she learned about the department, the more she would be able to be a real resource during an emergency.
“I want to be able to jump in and fill a role if someone can’t be here,” she said. “It makes you feel good to help other people or to anticipate problems and have a plan in place.
“We never know what is going to happen, but if you have a plan in place, you’ll have a better outcome.”
Baunoch, on the other hand, has been training for her role her entire life. Her father was a firefighter in Burtchville Township, and she followed in his shoes – she is still a firefighter there.
One of her earliest memories is of an early childhood birthday when, on that day, her father responded to the tunnel explosion in Lake Huron.
“I didn’t get a cake that year,” she said, fighting back tears at the memory of one of the most tragic moments in St. Clair County history. “But serving others, that’s just the way I was raised.”
With regard to the pandemic, Baunoch said she knows and understands that people are tired of being cooped up and want life to return to normal, but she is concerned that they will forget to continue to use caution.
“People are able to get out and do things now, and I think they are getting a little bit of a false sense of security,” she said. “I hope that doesn’t come back to bite us with a resurgence of the virus. There are still so many unknowns.”
As the state of Michigan and St. Clair County begin to open up again, the EOC has been able to reduce the number of days of the week and the number of hours it is manned, which is a shift from the early days of the pandemic.
But Baunoch is ready to continue to address this crisis or the next with the emergency preparedness team.
“It’s amazing how our entire staff here all work together,” she said. “Everybody works so well together.”
Mayes noted: “It feels like family here. And the way you feel about helping others in the community? You can’t get that feeling anywhere else.”