Paul Helmuth, deputy emergency coordinator of Harrisonburg Fire Department, was awarded a certificate of appreciation from CSHD health director, Dr. Laura Kornegay at Tuesday's council meeting.

Harrisonburg City Council voted to update its joint emergency operations plan at its Tuesday meeting.

The city has seen its share of emergencies in the past year or so, such as the global pandemic and an explosion that destroyed a shopping center and sent three people to the hospital.

Paul Helmuth, deputy emergency coordinator of the Harrisonburg Fire Department, said the city responds to many other types of emergencies too.

“We deal with some form of emergency all the time, whether we have minor flooding, snowstorms, ice storms,” Helmuth said Tuesday before the meeting.

Other emergencies the plan covers include droughts and water contamination, according to Helmuth.

“What this emergency operations plan looks at is much larger incidences where you’re having to bring in resources from the federal or state level,” Helmuth said.

He said the plan must be updated every four years, and this go around, there were no major changes as most of the modifications were updating contact and other information.

The plan is created jointly with Rockingham County and James Madison University as a foundation to a joint response to an emergency in the area.

At the meeting, Helmuth explained the updates to council.

Mayor Deanna Reed asked what recommendations Helmuth can give City Council about dealing with an emergency like the explosion, when many people started calling her offering assistance.

In his presentation, Helmuth said too many people offering help in an emergency can sometimes be unproductive, such as a summer hurricane in Florida when a Northern state sent truckloads of winter coats.

Reed said that after the Oct. 17, 2020, explosion on Miller Circle, she was inundated with calls from people offering help. She asked Helmuth what council should do if something like that occurs and first responders are tied up responding to the crisis.

“In our after-action review, one thing [that] was identified was we didn’t set up our emergency operations center, and we should have,” Helmuth said.

For a large operation like the explosion response, it would be normal to open up the emergency operations center and staff it, he said. Then, when council members get such calls as Reed described, they could be directed to the emergency operations center.

However, he said he and Harrisonburg Fire Chief Matt Tobia, the lead emergency responders, were some of the first on the scene of the explosion and got tied up.

“We will fix that for next time,” Helmuth said.

Also during Tuesday’s meeting, Dr. Laura Kornegay, director of the Central Shenandoah Health District, awarded a certificate of appreciation to Helmuth for his efforts in the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She described Helmuth as a “gem” and said he was among the first emergency responders in the 10 localities that make up the CSHD to dig into the virus and how localities would need to respond to it.

In previous interviews, other city leaders have commended Helmuth for his efforts.

After Helmuth was given the award, a video was shown, in which his father, Phil Helmuth, described how Paul joined a rescue squad at 15 and how much he cares about serving his community.

“That’s where his heart has been ever since,” Phil Helmuth said in the video.

In total, the CSHD has distributed 171,000 vaccines for the virus, according to Kornegay.

In other business, City Council suspended its Nov. 23 meeting in favor of two work sessions focused on how to spend money from the American Rescue Plan Act on Nov. 16 and a second on Nov. 30, if needed.

City staff recommended council establish a date for such a work session.

In total, the city will receive $23.8 million and the city school system will receive $11.8 million to plug losses caused by the pandemic and economic downturn.

In the ARPA presentation, city staff estimated that the federal money the city has been allocated is about half of what it lost in revenue during the pandemic.

Other staff recommendations include committing the city’s first lot of ARPA funds for projects put on hold because of the pandemic, and for council to come up with a community engagement process to allocate funds from the second allotment of ARPA funds for “eligible community-focused projects and programs,” according to the presentation.

City Manager Eric Campbell said staff will present council with a list of projects the city put on hold due to pandemic budget issues at the work session.

Campbell also said staff is recommending council hire a new full-time employee temporarily focused on making sure all the funds are used on eligible projects and in a timely manner before the deadline.

At the end of the meeting, council and staff spoke about the need to improve the video quality of meeting broadcasts to improve accessibility. Staff members said they would look into effective ways of making improvements.

Contact Ian Munro at 574-6278 or imunro@dnronline.com. Follow Ian on Twitter @iamIanMunro

(1) comment


“However, he said he and Harrisonburg Fire Chief Matt Tobia, the lead emergency responders, were some of the first on the scene of the explosion and got tied up.”

This is outrageous! Is it known who tied these two gentlemen up and what was the motive behind such an action?[whistling]

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.