For 20 years, John Dougherty has been ready around the clock to handle every kind of emergency that threatened Bucks County residents, from terrorist attacks and floods to fires and hazardous chemical spills.
“It’s a 24-hour-a-day job,” says Dougherty, coordinator of the county’s Emergency Management Agency. “I’m responsible for the safety and welfare of 620,000 people, which includes my family.”
Now, he’s ready to retire on Friday, to spend time with his wife and their children and grandchildren.
“A lot of the times, she weathered the storms alone,” Dougherty, 66, said last week about Ann, his wife of 43 years. “During Sandy, there was no power or heat at our house for 2½ days, and I was here” at the Emergency Operations Center in Ivyland.
“I want to be there” for her.
Overseeing construction of the state-of-the-art operations center at the former Naval Air Development Center in 1999 is one of Dougherty’s biggest accomplishments. When Dougherty took over emergency management services in 1992, the offices were in the basement of a leaky Doylestown Borough building that would fill with water during heavy rains, county Commissioner Vice Chairman Charles Martin said.
‘He was one of the people with the idea of moving the operations to where they are now,” Martin said. “It was a fortuitous move – it’s one of the best emergency centers in the Commonwealth.”
The emergency center can be a hectic place, and one of the coordinator’s main assets is to not get “too excitable,” Martin said.
“John managed to keep an even-tempered demeanor. He never got rattled or upset, from the afternoon of 9-11 through many flood situations, hurricanes and fires.
“He was the right man at the right time.”
Dougherty is a lifelong Bristol Borough resident who prepared for the county job by serving as a paid firefighter and volunteer emergency management coordinator in the borough. For 18 years, he was the fire chief at U.S. Steel Corp.’s sprawling Fairless Works, developing emergency plans for the 9,000-worker plant along the Delaware River.
But nothing could have prepared him for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
“When the Republican presidential convention was in Philadelphia” in 2000, “we were looking at what terrorists could do. The most common thing terrorists used was bombs,” Doughety said.
“None of us thought of loading a jet with fuel and flying into a building.”
Dougherty’s considers the Sept. 11 attacks his biggest challenge as county emergency coordinator “mainly because of the unknown of what was going to happen next. Can we prevent something? Are we ready to respond if something happens?”
School districts wanted to send students home, but Dougherty told them to “go to lockdown because there were a lot of latchkey homes, and I didn’t want the children to be home alone,” he said. “The teachers talked to them and kept them calm.”
The operations center surveyed hospitals to determine the number of available beds and the type of care available, he said. Chemical plants were advised to beef up security, and police were directed to watch for attacks on the power grid and transportation services, especially bridges between states.
“That was the most hectic emergency,” he said, “mainly to try to keep abreast of what was happening.”
The Blizzard of 1996 was Dougherty’s second-most challenging emergency because 30 inches of snow made it nearly impossible to get around, he said.
“The National Guard took dialysis patients, nurses and doctors to hospitals,” Dougherty said.
When Doylestown Hospital ran out of food, the Guard delivered donations from a supermarket, and the hospital fed the patients, staff and PennDOT workers, he said.
“There’s a lot of things we do behind the scenes that people don’t see,” Dougherty said. “For some reason, babies always want to be born during a snowstorm.”
The emergency center works with the American Red Cross and other organizations to open shelters when needed, “but they’re not used very much – maybe for a meal or a hot shower,” Dougherty said. “A lot of people feel more comfortable in their own bed than in a cot with other people around.”
The demands on emergency management have expanded greatly since the Cold War days, when Civil Defense agencies “prepared for the big bomb,” Dougherty said. “We never looked at pandemics or blowing up a subway car. We had to look at that stuff.”
Dougherty also has served as head of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Regional Taskforce, distributing hundreds of thousands of dollars in Homeland Security grants in the five-county area.
After Friday, he’ll focus on catching up with lost time. He plans to visit his son and granddaughter in Arizona, and since he is Irish and his wife is Italian, to journey to those countries.
“I want to go to the Grand Canyon and New York – I’ve never seen the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty,” Dougherty said.
“Ground Zero and the memorial?”