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Behind the scenes, Chris Grimes leads the county’s efforts during pandemic
Chris Grimes
Chris Grimes is the director of emergency management for Forsyth County. - photo by Matt Braskett

See the full issue of the May 400 Life magazine here.

Chris Grimes laughs when he hears the question.

“A day in my life?” Grimes repeats to himself. “That’s a really good question.”

Since the end of February, it has been consumed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Grimes, the director of emergency management for Forsyth County, has almost singularly focused on coordinating the county’s and city of Cumming’s efforts to handle the pandemic.

A day in Grimes’s life is an early morning and a late night. It’s helping distribute vital information from state and federal health officials to local partner agencies. It’s monitoring the county’s resources, like personal protective equipment. It’s consulting on city and county policy decisions. It’s thinking about what needs to be done that day but also what might need to be done three weeks from now. 

“The last few weeks have been very busy,” Grimes said.

Grimes usually fills a supporting role during local moments of crisis, but the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust him into a more prominent position. Behind the scenes, Grimes manages the situation, with the help of local partners, keeping Forsyth County prepared as confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to spread (As of mid-April, Forsyth County had more than 150 cases and five deaths, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health).

Grimes grew up in Kentucky, first in a little town called Hawesville (population 992 in 2018), then in the river town of Paducah, and Grimes’s career in public safety can be traced to formative experiences in both places. 

In Hawesville, Grimes spent a lot of time with a family in his neighborhood. The dad was a U.S. Marshal for Western Kentucky. One son was a Kentucky state trooper. Grimes was 5. Their uniforms and vehicles made an impression on Grimes, but so did their character.

“At that time, I really looked up to them,” Grimes said.

Then, when Grimes was in middle school, while living in Paducah, one of the first school shootings in the U.S. occurred at a nearby high school. On Dec. 1, 1997, a 14-year-old freshman male student opened fire on a group of students praying. Three died. Five others were injured.

“That’s when we realized that we had to harden schools,” Grimes said.

By the time his family moved from Kentucky to Forsyth County, Grimes suspected he wanted to pursue a career in public safety. He was sure of it after participating in the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office Explorer program while a student at South Forsyth High School, which prepares students for careers in law enforcement. 

Grimes eagerly took the necessary steps toward a public safety career. He interned in Forsyth County’s emergency management department while at the University of North Georgia and also worked there part-time. 

After graduating, he was the Forsyth County Schools school safety manager for over five years. In 2013, he became deputy director of Forsyth County Emergency Management. When Forsyth County split off emergency management from the fire department in 2018 following former Chief Danny Bowman’s retirement, Grimes took over as director of emergency management.

Since joining Forsyth County, Grimes has worked under two presidential disaster declarations: the winter storms of 2015 and Hurricane Irma in 2017. They were relatively quick events, sprints of work to respond and help the county recover from damages.

Around the start of the new year, Grimes heard on the news about a novel virus taking hold in China. He knew little about it. “We weren’t sure if it was going to be isolated to China or where it was going to be,” Grimes said.

A few days later, Grimes received his first notification about COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Around mid-February, Grimes started to meet with a group of local agencies, including law enforcement, the local school system, and a communication team along with health professionals. By late February, as the first COVID-19-related death was reported in the U.S., the coronavirus started to become all-encompassing for Grimes.

Right now, Grimes says the county is still in response mode, and it’s his job to coordinate that. Grimes helped the city of Cumming and Forsyth County as they rolled out measures to close government buildings, parks and dine-in restaurant service to promote social distancing and curb the spread of the coronavirus. He has helped monitor the county’s supply of personal protective equipment and worked to acquire more as needed from private companies as well as the state.

Perhaps the most demanding part has been managing the flood of information from the state and federal level to keep local partners informed. “Things are changing so quickly,” Grimes said, “sometimes even hour by hour.”

Eventually, Grimes and his department will transition into recovery mode. Grimes will focus on more administrative tasks, like getting the county reimbursed for expenses related to fighting COVID-19 from FEMA.

Grimes expects his department to be working on COVID-19 related matters “for the long haul,” he said. Grimes added, “This is a marathon. This is not a sprint.”

There’s been little time to think about the lasting impact the pandemic will have, but Grimes said his department and local partners will debrief one day and take inventory of the lessons learned. In fact, Grimes is challenging local partners to take notes along the way. 

“We always need to strive to get better,” Grimes said, “and we’re going to learn things as we go through this.”

The pandemic has also reinforced for Grimes the need for families to have an emergency plan and supply kit. Pandemics are generational events, but residents should be prepared for more frequent disasters like floods, hurricanes and tornadoes.

Grimes and his department will be ready for those moments, too, to work behind the scenes “to do what’s right for the county,” he said, making sure Forsyth County responds during the next crisis like a well-coached team.

“We all play a position,” Grimes said, “and we all have strengths. It’s extremely important for us to remember that it’s a team effort.”