After more than 50 years, the Bartow County Emergency Management Agency director exudes a confidence and intelligence achieved through first-hand experience. A Bartow County native, Payne served in the U.S. Army before beginning his time with the fire service in 1960. In 1997 after 37 years in the fire department, Bartow County Commissioner Clarence Brown asked Payne to take over direction of the EMA.
"I sat down there and said, 'Now wait a minute. Tell me what you expect out of the EMA director, what do you want me to do. Do you want me to go lower? Do you want me to stay where we're at? Or do you want me to go higher?' He told me, 'Well, I don't have a Cadillac pocketbook.' I said, 'No, but you got Ford and Chevrolet,'" Payne said. "I told him then I'd like to build it up to what I expected, what I think it ought to be, and that's the way I've been going."
After almost 15 years as EMA director, Payne maintains he plans to retire this year.
"Every time I get planned up, something comes along to stop me. Why, I don't know," he said. "I was planning on retiring this year, earlier, but my wife passed away and all my friends out here in the fire service, police and all this other stuff said, 'You don't need to right now. You need to keep busy, keep doing it.'
"... Nobody wants me to retire, but after awhile, you know ... your mouth gets you in trouble cause your body can't do it."
Regardless of when Payne hands over the reins, his impact on the county will live on -- Bartow County Fire Department Station 4 bears his name after all. But the legend will carry on, too, in the lives Payne has touched in his 50-plus years of public service.
A Cherokee County EMA representative said it best: "He's an icon, a landmark."
Name: Johnny Payne
City of Residence: Acworth
Family: My wife passed away Oct. 3 of last year, so it's me and I got a son and a daughter. My daughter's got my two grandchildren.
Occupation: Director of Bartow County Emergency Management Agency
Education: I was educated with the school system here in Bartow County. I left before I graduated in '55 and went into the service, but I finished up my GED and high school.
Q: After 37 years in the fire service, how has navigating EMA been different?
A: There's not much difference. ... The fire service you got to get out and do the good things, get outside, you know, and squirt water and do all that ... this is more of an office thing. I'm an outdoor man. I love to be outdoors, so that was my biggest thing is to sit here and get everything to going and planning and all that kind of stuff. We did that in the fire service, too, but you know this was a whole different ball game.
Now since, everybody knows, 2001, everything changed ... It's terrorism and all that stuff. It keeps you on your toes.
Q: There were questions surrounding disaster response following April's tornados. You were out on medical leave at that time. How do you feel the response was? And what would you have done differently?
A: You know ... me not being here they did a good job on it. When you got somebody that deals with it every day, you probably could have had things I could see that they couldn't, but I wasn't here to help them.
But it done good -- we have made some changes on a lot of stuff down there ... Now that we've got a faith-based group that's trying to get all the churches involved into it. That's not only us but Whitfield County; I read in a place [Tuesday] they are doing the same thing. We've got that up and going. We've learned a lot.
The biggest problems I had was after it was over with, was dealing with the emergency management at the federal level. They change stuff so much. One would come in here and tell me he wanted to do it one way, and one come and tell he wanted to do it one way. I called the big man and said, "Hey! We gotta talk. Which way you want it done?" That's my, what I'm supposed to do.
We wound up, it was over six hundred and something thousand dollars we were eligible for, which that's what they said but I didn't agree with them. ... The federal government pays 75 percent and the state pays 10 percent and then the county has to pick up 15 percent, which I don't agree with but that's the way they got it set up. We wound up with over five hundred and something thousand dollars back out of it. I'm glad we even got that much back.
Q: Where do you see the future of emergency services going, from fire to police to EMA? What do you see coming down the road?
A: ... Everything is gearing right now that anything you do is going through emergency management before it goes out anywhere. Smaller counties are going to be hurting. It's just like it is now, the bigger cities and all, they get more stuff than we do. But they say that's where it's going to hit ... My argument is, "OK. Yeah, you're going to get hit and it wipes your people out, who's coming to help you?" That's us. The surrounding areas need to be just as good as, equipment wise, as any of the big cities.
Q: We are getting a new commissioner the end of this year.
A: Yes, ma'am, and I love him to death, the one that's in there now. I wish he was going to be here, but he says he's not. The new commissioner? We'll have to wait and see.
Q: Are there any issues facing the EMA you would advocate for? What are the biggest hurdles facing emergency services you want the new commissioner to know about?
A: I'd like to have more people so I could have people in here to go out and teach safety classes in different areas. We do that in the schools and other, but we need to get the grown-up people involved in this. And the biggest thing is to get them more aware of what is going on and to listen, that's the biggest thing. If the citizens would plan for their, you always hear "the kit," three days, a lot of people don't do that. The economy right now, they can't put back three or four days of food and stuff cause a lot of them, that's what they've got to have right then. It's hard to do that. Planning is the biggest part of it, and that's the way it's going to come.
I hope the new director when I leave is going to be pretty smart because nowadays you have got to go to school a long time for it, which I had enough but now it's really going ... Most of them have got degrees in emergency management and that's what it's going to take.
Q: What would people be surprised to learn about you?
A: Be surprised to learn about me? You know, that's going to be a hard one. They know I'm old because they always tell me that. You know I can't think of anything my people, they know everything about me because they've been with me for so long.
Q: What would you be doing if you weren't the EMA director -- do you have a dream job?
A: No, ma'am, I don't have a dream job. My job, that's what I feel like I was put on this earth for, is in public safety. And I have loved every minute of it and I love what I do now. I wouldn't ask for no ... politics? Nope. I've been asked to run for office. No, I am not running for politics, but I love what I do and I've loved it ever since I got started in 1960.
Q: What makes Bartow County special?
A: I was born and raised here. It's in my blood. The people here, the friendliness and, when we do have a disaster -- it's not only been this last one I've known it for over the years, they are always there to help their neighbor. It's just a good place to live. ... I was born and raised toward Emerson; all that mining down there, I had a lot of that stuff in my blood but I didn't take it. I got into other things. I've always loved Bartow County.
Q: What's with the cigar? I've been told if you see Johnny, you see the cigar.
A: That's true. The cigar is a signature. Call over yonder and ask Mr. Moby [from South 107's Moby in the Morning Show] at Rome and the radio station. You tell him my name and he wouldn't know it, but the cigar he'd know. I started, like I told you, back in a few years ago I used to smoke cigars. I used to drive a truck. Cigarettes, never did like that. Cigars last longer, cheaper.
I had it and then I was on a fire, a woods fire and inhaled some poison ivy, so for about six months, I didn't have anything. Then back, [I] started chewing on it. It's more or less like a pacifier to a small child. I never could get rid of my other one so I just kept this thing.
To tell you the truth, and they'll argue with you, I think it keeps me calm. Like I told you awhile ago, as long as it's standing out straight (Payne demonstrates with the cigar), it's fine. But if you come up and it's twirling like a helicopter (again Payne demonstrates), we got problems.
Q: What is your favorite meal?
A: Favorite meal? Breakfast. I like a lot of the [traditional foods] -- gravy, biscuits and country ham and bacon. Any food for breakfast, I'm ready to eat. Oatmeal, pancakes, anything in there for breakfast, I'm ready to eat. I love to eat. That's my biggest downfall that I've got, I love to eat.
Q: Let's say you are on that proverbial deserted island. What three things is Johnny Payne taking?
A: Well, I hope if I'm on a deserted island I'm going to make sure I had some water. Maybe I could come up with a bunch of this C rations or K rations or whatever meal they've got in there, and a hammock. All I'm going to do is drink water, eat and sleep in a hammock and eat because I'm going to get done and I need to rest.