QUEENSBURY - Like Superman, or personal injury attorneys, workers from the State Emergency Management Office appear wherever disaster strikes.
They were in Fort Ann on June 2, when the Hadlock Pond dam unleashed a rushing flood that gobbled up asphalt and homes.
The previous month, they were on the Northway, when heavy rains washed away a chunk of the busy interstate.
Any time a train derails, a bridge fails, or flames engulf a mountainside, they are there, coordinating emergency response and providing the voice of experience to local officials who may have never dealt with anything so terrible.
"We bring the resources together," James Tuffey, the agency's director, said. "We don't fight the forest fire; we coordinate the response."
SEMO is headquartered in Albany, but one of five regional offices is on Fox Farm Road in Queensbury. Tuffey joined Dennis Michalski, assistant director of community affairs, and Robert Baccari, the regional director, on Friday to provide a look into what the agency does.
At street level, the SEMO grounds look like a dusty lot with a couple of trailers and tankers. The trailers are mobile command units that are taken to emergency scenes. They are outfitted with satellites, computers and videoconferencing equipment so agencies can communicate even if phone lines are out. The 5500-gallon tankers can be filled with water to bring to areas, like Hadlock Pond, when the drinking water goes out.
The grounds also house stockpiles of generators, chainsaws, water purification systems and other emergency supplies.
A stairway descends 21 feet underground to the regional headquarters office. It was built in 1968, at the height of the Cold War. Covered in eight feet of concrete, the bunker was designed to be an alternate seat of government in the case of nuclear attack.
Only three people work there now, but it is still outfitted with a kitchen, dorms, showers and a decontamination room. It looks much as it did in 1968, decorated in a shade of yellow that hasn't been used for decades. The original, outdated equipment sits idly next to the newer, state-of-the-art replacements.
Fortunately, nuclear war is one disaster the office has never had to handle. But it is one of the few. Michalski said that in the 10 years he has been with SEMO, the state has had 30 federally declared emergencies.
The hallways are lined with photographs of capsized ships, floods and fires that counties have submitted. One wall is covered with photographs from the World Trade Center attacks in 2001.
As a direct result of the terrorist attacks, Tuffey said, President Bush in 2003 ordered the development of a National Response Plan that would specify how federal, state and tribal agencies, as well as the private sector would work together in the event of a national incident. Details were announced in April 2005.
At the state level, a coordinated plan has already been in effect since Pataki signed the order establishing the Incident Command System (ICS) as the communications standard in 1996.
The work SEMO does goes beyond the immediate response to an emergency.
"A lot of the time, the press doesn't realize, when the cameras are gone, the real work begins," Tuffey said.
Even as emergency responders are dealing with the immediate problem, he said, "We're already thinking days out." They look at long-term needs, such as housing and economic development issues. They also disburse federal and state disaster recovery funds to local governments.
Between incidents, SEMO workers spend their time preparing and planning for whatever catastrophes nature, or man, may have in store. They track storms, look for ways to mitigate recurring disasters, such as floods, and provide training to emergency responders.
As much time as they spend thinking about every eventuality, occasionally something happens that they never could have imagined.
"If you're prepared, you can respond to anything," Tuffey said. "At the end of the day, it's the same. Who ever thought there would be a 9-11? You prepare as best you can. Sometimes you ad lib."
Even at relatively routine disasters, Michalski said, they have to remember it is not routine to the people affected.
"When people have an emergency," he said, "it's often the worst time in their lives."
"I always try to personalize it," he said. "There but for the grace of God go us. We understand that we may have been through a hundred incidents, but we have got to remember it's probably their first time."