December 21, 2011Editor's note: The writer is a veteran of emergency services with 12-1/2 years experience as a certified emergency medical technician in Crawford and Harrison counties, three years as a certified emergency medical technician instructor in Crawford and Harrison counties, eight years as a Marengo volunteer firefighter, two years as a hazardous materials officer for Harrison County EMS, three years as an assistant emergency management volunteer in Crawford County and four years as a member of the Crawford County Local Emergency Planning Committee.
As I am writing this, Crawford County is losing what I consider to be its most valuable asset. Crawford County Emergency Management Director Kent Barrow has resigned from his position to work in the private sector in neighboring Harrison County.
For Barrow, being an emergency management director was more than just a job. He was certified in emergency management after having taken all the training required for the post and even more training after that. Barrow stayed up to date, going to meetings and emergency exercises on a regular basis to stay fresh in all aspects of the job. He constantly met with directors from neighboring counties and also with officials at the state level as well as the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. If there was any new information coming out, Barrow made a point to learn it and know it. He knew what his purpose was and that was keeping the people in his charge safe.
During his five years here, he did just that. Before Barrow took the position, the county had just one working warning siren. Barrow increased that number to seven. Barrow had the placement of the sirens set up as such to make sure all six county school campuses would be adequately warned. The system was also equipped with multiple triggering devices so that, if there was a problem setting off the siren at one site, other fire department headquarters would have the capability to trigger the sirens, as well.
Barrow knew what it took to acquire grant money available to the county and was a master at getting it. In his five years here, Barrow acquired almost $750,000 that went for upgrades in the county's communications and other emergency equipment. He was the major player in setting up the 800 MHz radio system the county now uses and acquired dozens of mobile and handheld radios for fire departments, emergency medical units and other emergency personnel.
Barrow, however, was at his best when there were real emergencies. When the Jasper Engines and Transmissions plant at Carefree suffered a major explosion, Barrow was one of the first on the scene and immediately went to work determining what hazardous materials were involved in the explosion. From there, he and his Blackberry went to work getting the specialized help required, which included a mobile emergency operations center from Floyd County and a hazardous materials unit from the Louisville Fire Department.
Barrow's next major event came when Hurricane Ike brought in 70-to-80-mph winds across the region. Crawford County was one of hardest hit areas with extreme damage all across the county. Barrow and his Blackberry again went to work. Barrow worked hard to bring in as many portable generators as needed as well as crews to help in tree removal. At one point, Barrow went four days without sleep to make sure the rest of the county was taken care of. The county came first; he could sleep later.
Then came the major ice storm that struck just a few months later that brought down trees and power lines. Nearly the entire county suffered complete power loss. Some homes went as long as 10 days without electricity. This event proved much more difficult to handle with other counties suffering the same fate. With temperatures well-below freezing, Barrow saw to it that those without power or heat had a warm place to reside, working with Hillview Christian Church near Marengo where a shelter was set up. More than 180 people stayed there during the ordeal until power was restored to their respective areas.
Barrow saw to it that even when he was away at a meeting or elsewhere that his office remained active. He did that by setting up a team of assistant EMA volunteers to handle any emergency while he was away. That group also kept Barrow informed of any situation until he returned.
Barrow's work wasn't just limited to the bigger events. Any accident or fire in the county, he was there on the scene. Whether his part included just getting water for personnel, directing traffic or having the Red Cross brought to the scene, he made sure the job got done.
The last major event Barrow worked came in April 2010 when seven cars of a Norfolk-Southern freight train derailed in old English at the crossing of S.R. 237. The incident had the potential of being a major disaster. Immediately behind the seven wrecked cars were four 10,000-gallon tankers filled with denatured alcohol. Immediately in front of the wrecked cars were other tankers carrying unknown hazardous materials. Had the derailment occurred only seconds before or later, the possibility of a major fire and explosion would have increased dramatically. Once again, Barrow and his Blackberry were put to work getting the right people to handle the situation. The emergency was handled calmly with no injuries.
Outside of the county, Barrow had the highest respect from his peers. I witnessed the amount of respect given to Barrow at District 10 meetings and other district exercises. Even at the state level, Barrow had the highest respect in the emergency management field.
One way that respect was shown was when a major emergency happened in one of the district counties. When a large factory caught fire in Gibson County, Barrow was asked to help, and he immediately went to assist all he could. Barrow also offered his assistance during a large factory fire in Tell City that occurred during a District 10 meeting.
Earlier this year, an EF-2 tornado violently spun its way through Dubois County, leaving major damage in its wake in the small town of Celestine. With a new EMA director at the helm, the EMA office there was swamped with requests for help. A quick call was made to Barrow for assistance. Barrow never hesitated, making the run to Dubois County to help get the process of disaster relief moving in the right direction.
These actions are the ones that made Barrow so popular at both the state and district levels. These other county directors knew how dependable Barrow was and gave him the utmost respect, putting him at the lead of a number of committees and exercises. They knew Barrow would do anything, including taking the shirt off his own back, to help in any way he could.
Back in his home county, however, that respect fell like a lead ball to the bottom of a river. Despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars Barrow brought in to the county, despite all the upgrades in equipment, despite all the late nights and hours without sleep and despite all the lives Barrow had probably saved, he was never really rewarded by county officials for his efforts.
Barrow was the lowest paid emergency management agency director in the state at a salary of less than $30,000. What most people don't know is the state paid half of that, which put the county's cost at less than $15,000 a year, a blue-light special in anybody's book considering what Barrow has been able to accomplish in just five years.
Barrow wasn't asking for the moon when he put in his requests for a salary increase, the county's part being only a paltry $1,500. He still would have been the lowest paid EMA director in the state. When Barrow did put his request in, he got the same answer every time: "Well, if we give you a raise, we'll have to give everybody else one, too." Nothing more than a typical political cop-out. I went to the home of one council member myself and the answer was the same, "Yes, he's done a good job and we'd hate to lose him, but, if we give him a raise, we'll give everybody else one, too." County officials completely refused to reward Barrow for his efforts.
Even among the emergency agencies in the county, Barrow didn't get the respect he should have. When the freight train derailed in April 2010, an emergency agency head was heard to say, "We need some training on these things."
As chairman of the county's local emergency planning committee, Barrow had provided training in both 2008 and 2009. In 2008, the LEPC provided a tabletop exercise of a hazardous-materials scenario that involved students at the Crawford County Junior-Senior High School. While there was a good attendance to the exercise, the ones who really needed to be there the most chose not to attend.
In 2009, Barrow, again as chairman of the LEPC, provided a full-scale disaster exercise at the school for all emergency agencies to participate. Just days before the exercise, Barrow was scolded by agency heads for not giving details of the scenario ahead of time. One agency head went so far as to threaten not to send any units or personnel if not given the scenario. Everybody wanted an open-book test instead of working the exercise and coming up with a solution. What they forgot is that actual emergencies don't hand out the answers to the problems before they happen.
The exercise proved to be an embarrassment to the county with both state and district officials looking on because of lack of participation in the event. Some thought being at a demolition derby across the street was more important than learning how to handle an incident where lives were on the line.
Barrow made one last attempt to the council with two requests at his last budget hearing. One was to replace the current EMA vehicle, which is on its last legs, and the other was, again, the small increase in salary. Without even looking at Barrow or his application, the council simply said, "Fix it" and made no word at all about his salary. That was it. Any support Barrow was looking for was not to be. He was done.
In October, Barrow turned in his resignation, stunning the three county commissioners during their executive session. He told me more than once he didn't really want to leave the county or his job but had no choice. After the meeting, one commissioner came to Barrow and said, "We're in trouble." They should have thought about that earlier.
Barrow deserved more. Barrow deserved better. He had earned the respect and rewards for his efforts and instead got nothing. With Barrow goes the experience to bring quick action and results in an emergency situation, no matter how extreme. And more big emergencies will come; it's only a matter of when. Gone is Barrow's magic Blackberry and the finger to make things happen fast. Barrow is gone and the county, the district and the state is a lesser place because of it.