Mr. Billy Mitcham has often been described as “the calm during the storm” for Thomaston-Upson County in the last 53 years. He has dutifully served his community as the Emergency Management Agency (EMA) Director since 1959, always watching, planning and preparing for any weather-related event, emergency or disaster that may happen. However, as they say all good things must come to an end, and on December 31, 2012 Mitcham will retire and hand the reins over to someone else.
“It has been a good trip,” he said of his service, “but it is time to step back and let somebody else take over. I realize it is going to be a big change and it will probably take a while for it to register when I hear something to know that I don’t have to get up and go, but I feel it is time.”
During the five decades of his emergency management career, Mitcham has seen many technological changes, as well as five different names for the organization, beginning as Civil Defense to the present Emergency Management and Homeland Security. Early in his career, the focus of the agency was on nuclear fallout protection and evacuation plans before transitioning the focal point to the preparation and implementation of plans for dealing with natural disasters.
“It could be frustrating at times because you never know what the weather is going to do; we had to be ready for anything,” said Mitcham.
He noted that the Upson County area has been blessed to not experience as much destructive weather as other areas have, typically only a few minor tornados. However, there are two main events that will forever stand out in his mind: the ice storm of 1973 and the floods of 1994, both of which paralyzed the community for days at a time.
As much of an asset that Mitcham has been to Upson County, he has also been just as valuable to many other communities throughout the state. He was well ahead of the curve with his development of disaster plans and development of volunteer resources before they were ever encouraged by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Association) and GEMA (Georgia Emergency Management Association). Due to his progressiveness, his help has been sought by numerous counties throughout Georgia and his plans have become models for many other emergency management agencies.
In recognition of his efforts, Mitcham was recently awarded the Governor’s Public Safety Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Profession. He is the first EMA Director to ever receive this honor. During the ceremony he was also praised for being a leader in the state in the area of river rescue operations. It was during his tenure that Upson County developed one of the first all-volunteer river rescue squads, which has saved many lives on the Flint River and has been awarded the Margurite Brock Award for the Top Rescue Unit in the state twice. His plans for the rescue unit, like many of his others, are used as an example for other units to follow.
Mitcham’s dedication and wisdom were pointed out in the program at the awards ceremony.
“The citizens of the state of Georgia are safer and public safety units are more prepared to respond to events in their communities because of the contributions Mitcham has made over his 53 years of service. His humble, cooperative spirit and willingness to help those all over the state, not just in his community, make his contributions to the emergency management profession all the more exceptional.”
However, the ever humble Mitcham does not take any of the credit himself, instead stating that it is the sacrifices of the volunteers that work with the EMA who have made everything possible.
“I appreciate all of the volunteers who work with us,” said Mitcham. “They are often out late at night and then up early the next morning for work. The county is fortunate to have such a dedicated group of people.”
He also thanked all of the local department heads and local government officials in Thomaston, Yatesville and Upson County for their cooperation and funding over the years, because without them, the EMA would not be able to do what it does.
Even if he is reluctant to accept commendations, several local officials applauded Mitcham for his efforts and thanked him for a job well done.
Commission Chairman Maurice Raines stated, “Mr. Billy is an icon in not only Upson County, but also throughout the State of Georgia. He has proudly served his fellow man without accepting any self gratification and is always willing to do what others wouldn’t. We will definitely miss his service to this community, but he is very deserving of his retirement. I wish him all the best.”
Thomaston Mayor Hays Arnold acknowledged Mitcham’s accomplishments at a recent city council meeting. “He has been an outstanding contributor to this community. He has been a great citizen and a great friend to me through the years. He’s done a fine job, and I know there will be a difficulty in finding someone to replace Billy, who will do the job that he has done. I’m sure that will happen, and I look forward to that, but he has really been an outstanding citizen and done an outstanding job. We owe Billy a debt of gratitude and thanks throughout the community, and I want to thank him for that.”
Yatesville Mayor Cecil Moncrief noted, “Billy has always been there anytime something has happened. He was usually one of the first to arrive and was willing to assist in any way that he could. He has gone above and beyond the call of duty during his time as EMA Director. I hate to see him go; we will never be able to replace him. He has been a good EMA Director and a good friend. I wish him the best.”
Martha Anne McCarty of the Thomaston-Upson EMA described Mitcham as a “diamond in the rough,” someone who has quietly worked behind the scenes on disasters, rescue operations, searches in the areas of response and recovery, but more importantly, has ensured that planning and mitigation have been at the forefront of his duties. “I have been very fortunate to learn a number of things from him in regards to emergency preparedness and in the realm of human resources. He is a fine Christian man. He holds Upson County and all of its communities near and dear to his heart. He has always had the well-being of each citizen on his mind. If there were a way to extract everything Emergency Management from him, I believe I could fill up the entire hard drive on a computer with all that information. I wish him well in his retirement, and I know that as Emergency Management moves forward, we can count on him to be a valuable resource.”
As he hangs up his hat as EMA Director, Mitcham plans to spend his time enjoying his family and grandchildren. However, he noted he will still be around and is willing to help the agency in any way that he can.