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Almost half of Johnson City's directors qualify for retirement

Out of Johnson City’s 18 director positions, eight employees currently qualify for retirement based on their age or length of service.

City Manager Pete Peterson announced in March that he plans to retire at the end of 2021 after 31 years with the organization.

Assistant City Manager Bob Wilson is also getting ready to retire this year. The city is currently taking applications for his position and has conducted some interviews. Those will continue in the coming weeks.

The Johnson City Press recently checked in with the city to get an overview of its succession planning process.

Planning ahead

Overall, Human Resources Director Steve Willis said, the first step of succession planning is to identify key positions at the city and skills that are necessary for people to be successful in those position.

The city then identifies existing employees who have those skills or could develop them over the long or short term. At the same time, city staff are assessing the job market and the likelihood of Johnson City being able to attract qualified outside candidates.

“For internal candidates we develop action plans to address the skill gaps for future promotions,” Willis said. “Some internal candidates may not be interested in filling a role permanently but may be willing to fill in for a period of time while recruitment is ongoing.”

Asked whether officials would prioritize in-house hiring versus filling positions using a national search, Willis said the city values upward mobility.

In the 2021 fiscal year, he said, the city has promoted 53 employees.

“Unfortunately, internal promotion is not always possible,” he said. “Some positions, due to their very specific skillset requirements, or limited available candidates dictate a national search.”

Although the City Commission only has direct oversight over the city manager, Mayor Joe Wise said, the body has regularly raised the topic of succession planning and its importance in the event of turnover.

“Anytime that’s a possibility, it’s incumbent for an organization to at least grapple with that fact and to do so in a way that begins to anticipate contingencies,” he said.

With nearly half the city’s directors being eligible for retirement, the city has made efforts to be prepared, Wise said, but he added that it’s impossible to be too prepared.

Promoting diversity

In a guest column published in the Johnson City Press this month, the Washington County/Johnson City NAACP questioned the level of diversity in leadership roles at the city.

The departmental directory, the organization wrote, lists about 40 administrators, managers and supervisors. After reviewing those positions, the group counted only three people of color.

“The ultimate goal of any municipality should be to hire the best possible candidate for each job while striving for the employee population to be representative of the community as a whole,” Willis said.

He said the city is aware of that goal and added that external recruitment helps attract a diverse pool of candidates.

“At the same time we must balance that recruitment outside our organization with internal succession planning,” he said. “Attracting diverse candidates at all levels of employment is critical to increasing diversity at the director level and above.”

Update on the city manager search

With Peterson set to retire at the end of this year, the city is now receiving proposals from recruiting firms. The chosen company will help officials conduct a national search for a new city manager.

“We’re trying to focus on firms with a proven history and track record of working on behalf of cities to recruit senior level executive talent,” Wise said.

Wise said leaders hope to settle on a choice in May so the firm can start the search process in June. Depending on the timeline, Wise said, city leaders could start meeting with candidates by August and maybe make a job offer in September.

Watch now: Times News investigates wildlife strike data for Tri-Cities Airport

BLOUNTVILLE — Over the course of eight days in the summer of 2018, Allegiant Flight No. 841 twice struck birds during takeoff from Tri-Cities Airport.

“On departure climb off Runway 23 at TRI, AAY841 reported to local controller they had hit multiple small birds,” states a report submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration about the incident on July 2.

The same flight struck several birds the morning of July 9 during takeoff. Moments before departure, an airport employee had tried to disperse the birds with a pyrotechnic device that makes a loud bang.

July is the month with the greatest number of strikes, with 36 reported over the past five years, according to a Kingsport Times News analysis of the FAA’s Wildlife Strike Database.

In all, the Times News examined 74 strikes between April 5, 2016, and April 5, 2021, at Tri-Cities Airport and discovered the following:

• Sixty-five of the strikes involved commercial passenger aircraft.

• Roughly 77% of strikes happened between July and October, when nesting and migration occur.

• None of the strikes resulted in injury, death or significant damage to aircraft, thanks in part to wildlife mitigation protocols.

In contrast to Tri-Cities Airport, 1,269 strikes occurred at Memphis, 518 at Nashville and 111 at Knoxville during the same five-year period.

About 227,005 strikes with civil aircraft occurred in the U.S. between 1990 and 2019, according to the FAA.

An additional 4,275 strikes were reported by U.S. air carriers at foreign airports between the same years.

From 1988 to 2019, 292 fatalities were attributed to wildlife strikes globally, according to the FAA.

Managing wildlife

All airports certified by the FAA are required to develop and maintain a Wildlife Hazard Management Plan that is specific to the airport, the habitats around the facility and the overall wildlife environment.

Tri-Cities Airport, which handles about 39,000 landings and departures per year, spends about $3,500 annually on mitigation and does an annual review of its wildlife program.

“Avian wildlife is a major impact to this plan at most airports, but at airports in environments like we have here in Northeast Tennessee, birds are a greater consideration,” Tri-Cities Airport Authority Executive Director Gene Cossey said in an email.

Cossey said airport operations, maintenance and public safety staff members constantly monitor the areas on and adjacent to the airport for wildlife activity.

Employees keep records of the activity and annually review the wildlife management plan for necessary revisions and to examine possible mitigation options, he said.

“Airport staff makes the safety of our flying public our number one consideration, and we are constantly working on the variables we have under our control to keep the airport safe and secure,” Cossey said.

Wildlife coordinator

Lt. Scott Harrell with the Tri-Cities Airport Public Safety Department is the airport’s wildlife coordinator. He uses a shotgun and revolver that make loud noises to disperse birds.

“We monitor birds crossing the runway,” he said. “We monitor any kind of wildlife — sometimes coyotes, foxes — and make sure all the culverts are secure so nothing can come in.”

HANK HAYES — hhayes@timesnews.net 

Lt. Scott Harrell of the Tri-Cities Airport Public Safety Department is always on the watch for birds on the airfield. He noted the number of birdstrikes goes up in the summer due to airfield mowing and birds nesting.

Tri-Cities Airport has 10- to 12-foot-high fencing around the airfield to keep larger animals out and a concrete base to block burrowing animals.

Wildlife strikes can be reported either by the airlines or the tower, Harrell said.

All public safety officers are trained in wildlife elimination procedures, and airport employees review methods and procedures every 12 months.

“We look at past strikes,” Harrell said. “We review how we are dispersing harassment techniques.”

Harrell said the number of strikes increases in the summer due to airfield mowing and birds nesting.

About 53% of bird strikes occur from July to October, according to the FAA. This is when young birds recently have fledged from nests and fall migration occurs.

There are four migration patterns in the U.S., and Blountville is located between two of them.

The Mississippi Flyway crosses the airport’s path, with more than 325 bird species making the round trip from their breeding grounds in Canada and the Northern U.S. to their wintering grounds in the Gulf of Mexico and in Central and South America, according to the Audubon Society.

Additionally, the airport is in the Atlantic Flyway, which the Audubon Society says is home to a wide variety of ecosystems.

Feather identification

The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s Feather Identification Lab in Washington, D.C., conducts research into identifications of birds that are ingested into aircraft engines.

Airports, including Tri-Cities, send bird remains to the lab if they want to identify the specifies.

“Reporting wildlife strikes is crucial to the continuing effort of birdstrike prevention,” according to information on the lab’s website.

“Identification of bird species involved in bird/aircraft strikes is an important part of the overall assessment and management of wildlife mitigation at airports.”

Knowing the exact species provides guidance about the size, behavior and ecology of the bird in question and is key to tracking species trends as well as focusing preventative measures, according to the website.

Notable strikes

The requirement to have a wildlife management plan began after the Jan. 15, 2009, bird strike involving US Airlines Flight 1549 piloted by Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. Sullenberger successfully landed on the Hudson River after striking a flock of geese.

The first reported bird strike was by Orville Wright while flying over a cornfield in Ohio in 1905, according to the FAA.

The deadliest event happened Oct. 4, 1960, according to the FAA. Eastern Air Lines Flight 375 struck a flock of European starlings during takeoff from Boston Logan International Airport. The aircraft crashed in the Boston Harbor, killing 62 people.

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When distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was paused, Providence Medical Clinic adapted on the fly

On Monday, Providence Medical Clinic of Kingsport, in partnership with East Tennessee State University’s Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy, was finalizing plans for a COVID-19 vaccination clinic with 200 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on hand.

That vaccine’s one-shot design made it ideal to distribute to at-risk community members who might have trouble returning for a second shot.

“When we found out from the state that we were able to get COVID vaccines, we knew that we were a really perfect place to do a mass vaccination clinic like this,” said Clinic Director Leigh Anne Hogue.

Then came Tuesday morning.

That’s when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a joint statement calling on states to suspend use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after a small number of people developed a rare but severe form of blood clots after receiving the vaccine.

Shortly after that, the Tennessee Department of Health advised health care providers across the state not to use the vaccine, throwing a wrench into Providence’s vaccination plans just one day before the event was scheduled to take place.

Dr. Emily Flores, a clinic volunteer and associate professor of pharmacy practice at ETSU, said at first, they didn’t know what to do. Fortunately for Providence and its at-risk patients, they found a partner willing to transfer some of its vaccine supply: Ballad Health, which gave the clinic 115 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

“For a while, we didn’t know what to do,” said Flores. “We had to think what our options were — what the network was in this area — and to me it’s another story of people coming together and taking an extra few minutes out of their day to say, ‘How can we make this work?’ and showing that we do care about this population and want to provide vaccine.”


Providence Medical Clinic volunteers pose for a photo during Wednesday's vaccine event. 

Hogue said they were really shocked Tuesday morning when the news broke, and that, while they were stressed, they had faith it would work out in the end.

“Even when we knew in that moment that we had vaccine in the building we couldn’t use, I think everybody stayed really positive and kept the faith that we would figure out some sort of alternative for our patients,” Hogue said.

For the 90 people who received their first shot Wednesday afternoon, the vaccines could, quite literally, prove to be a lifesaver.

“The leaders of Ballad really believe in the work that we’re doing down here in the clinic,” Hogue said. “I think once they realized that when the news came out this morning about Johnson & Johnson they realized that we had this great day planned to vaccinate our patients and other community members, they were willing to transfer over some vaccine for us to use.”

Flores said she was thankful they weren’t forced to cancel their event, something other vaccine clinics were forced to do, including an ETSU Health clinic that was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

A volunteer draws a syringe during Providence Medical Clinic's vaccine event on Wednesday, April 14. 

“We’re really thankful we didn’t have to skip today,” said Flores. “I know some other sites did have to skip appointments, and so I’m glad that it worked out the way that it did for us.”

She encouraged everyone to get a vaccine as soon as they can: “Of course we’re wanting to move out of this pandemic, but in the meantime we’re going to have to continue to wear masks and do our social distancing and do our due diligence until we get enough vaccine out there and until our rates go down.

“We’ve still got work to do, but today was an absolute encouragement,” Flores continued.

Jim Thackett, an 83-year-old volunteer who had to sit on the sidelines for much of last year due to the virus, said the event went really well, though he said “it was a big disappointment that the J&J situation came up at the last minute.”

“It just is amazing,” Thackett said. “We’re a faith-based organization, and we see God at work every day, and this is just an example. Things like this — it’s not by happenstance when these things occur.”