Reopen Tuscaloosa: Behind the Scenes with Incident Command Featured

The city of Tuscaloosa’s Incident Command Center, activated to help mitigate the response to COVID-19, is located in the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater. The city of Tuscaloosa’s Incident Command Center, activated to help mitigate the response to COVID-19, is located in the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater. City of Tuscaloosa

In late January of 2020, city officials in Tuscaloosa began monitoring and planning for a potential pandemic that was beginning to catch the attention of news outlets across the world. The quick transmission and international spread indicated an urgent need for preparation, even with the only known U.S. case being in the extreme northwest. 

On March 13, the first case of COVID-19 was documented in Alabama, and the City of Tuscaloosa moved from planning to action, as coronavirus's spread to Tuscaloosa appeared imminent. 

Activating Incident Command

As the domestic spread of the coronavirus accelerated, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox activated the City of Tuscaloosa’s Incident Command Level 1. On Feb. 27, Maddox named Tuscaloosa Fire and Rescue Chief Randy Smith as Incident Commander. The incident command structure is designed to provide an organized uniform method of dealing with large events, from tornadoes to University of Alabama football games. It’s built to scale up or down as the incident dictates and can even form additional branches, as was needed to respond to an EF-1 tornado that touched down in north Tuscaloosa on Easter Sunday. 

The city of Tuscaloosa’s incident command responding to the coronavirus is made up seven branches. The first branch is the incident commander and command staff, including a deputy incident commander, a safety officer, a public information officer, an employee advocate, and a liaison. The remaining branches include a planning section, a logistics section, an operations section, finance, project teams, and a special section called Tuscaloosa’s Promise. Tuscaloosa’s Promise is tasked with assuring Tuscaloosa is ready in the event local hospitals reach their capacity. Each section reports up through the command structure to the incident commander.

Most incident commands activated by the city of Tuscaloosa are housed in the Harrison Taylor Incident Command Center, a bunker like series of rooms below city hall. But early into this incident, it became apparent that space wouldn’t be the best fit. Incident command and the accompanying staff all moved to the campus of the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater, converting the Mercedes Club into a briefing room and the dining room into the command floor. City staff has even converted an office that houses incident command for Amphitheater shows in a makeshift studio where Mayor Maddox hosts his Mayor’s Virtual Townhall Meetings to keep Tuscaloosans informed about the virus and the city’s response. 

The First 10 Days

At the start of Tuscaloosa’s coronavirus response, things moved quickly.

“We were reviewing orders from the Alabama Department of Public Health and Governor’s Office that seemed to be coming out every few hours,” said Scott Holmes, an attorney with the Office of the City Attorney who is assigned to the operations section of incident command. “Conditions began to change quickly, and we were forced to respond just as fast, drafting policy that would normally be worked on for weeks or months in a matter of hours.”

In the first 10 days of the crisis, the city of Tuscaloosa went from activating incident command to putting an evening curfew in place to issuing a full 24-hour curfew. Fortunately, the breakneck speed of developments has slowed somewhat, and city staff started in mid-April to begin the planning process for coming out of the 24-hour curfew and reopening businesses. 

Tuscaloosa Fire Rescue Service EMS Officer Blake Squires works at a computer station inside the Incident Command Center.

Reopen Tuscaloosa Plan

“We are thankful our state leaders have kept open communication with us throughout their planning process, and they recognize that each city and region in our state is unique, and what’s good for Saraland might not be right for Tuscaloosa,” said Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox. Maddox has tapped Brendan Moore, Executive Director of Urban Development, and Associate City Attorney Scott Holmes with formulating what the city is calling Reopen Tuscaloosa.   

“It is a huge task,” said Holmes. “We want to be ready to go when it’s time, but we have to get this right. And again, we’re in a situation of taking months’ worth of policy work and compressing it into a week or two.”

City staff have been busy working out the details of the plan to be unveiled on Apr. 28. 

“I think our plan will look pretty familiar to people,” said Holmes. “Many of the features you’re seeing on the state and national level will be there, but our plan will be Tuscaloosa’s plan and will be tailored to our community, our resources, and our medical realities.”

The Timing: Three Phases

Tuscaloosa’s plan, while still in the drafting stage, will likely consist of three phases that will reopen businesses by category of business. Methods will be put in place to avoid a resurgence of COVID-19.

“At this point, the plan is designed to have a minimum of 14 days between each phase. This timing should allow us to gauge the effect of each phase. If we’re seeing increased numbers of coronavirus infections, we won’t move to the next phase, and can move backward if necessary,” Holmes said about the timing of Tuscaloosa’s reopening plan. 

The city will engage with business owners from various sectors of the Tuscaloosa economy with help from the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, using the Chamber’s input to help put the details into the plan.

“We want the plan to be as business friendly as possible, ultimately it’s our small businesses that are taking the brunt of the coronavirus related closures, but the absolutely critical feature is that this plan put the health and well-being of our community first. It will not help our local restaurants to reopen, restaff, retrain, restock, and then reclose,” Maddox said.

The Framework

City staff is still putting together the matrix that will be used to determine when it is medically appropriate to move forward with reopening and how to gauge when it is safe to move from one phase to the next.

“We’re working with a number of local medical authorities and closely with Dr. Robin Wilson from DCH to put together an objective set of numbers to look at to guide us,” Holmes said in describing the framework of the matrix. “It will contain daily new coronavirus hospitalizations, positive test numbers, and medical dates, but will also look at testing ability, hospital capacity, PPE inventory numbers, and other indicators of our local outbreak status and preparedness.” 

Mayor Maddox is excited to see Tuscaloosa come back to life.

“We’re Tuscaloosa, we’re known for packing a couple hundred thousand people into our town. We don’t do sitting at home well, it’s not in this city’s DNA. I look forward to responsibly getting everyone back to work, back to shopping in our local stores, and back to eating in our amazing restaurants, but we have to do it right. We only want to have to reopen Tuscaloosa once.”

Richard Rush is the director of communications for the city of Tuscaloosa.

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Druid City Living (DCL) is Tuscaloosa, Alabama's premier community newspaper, covering the great people, places and activities of the area.