If you’re a business owner or resident in Lewis & Clark County, Montana, chances are you have been on the receiving end of one of Paul Spengler’s disaster preparedness messaging and outreach efforts.
After 35 years in his role as the Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator for the county, Spengler has become a county mainstay and a successful advocate for disaster preparedness, which is quite the feat considering the fact that he had little to no emergency management experience before applying for the position in 1979 (unless you count being a stay-at-home father for his two sons for 8 months).
“I got the job because I was the only applicant who read the County Emergency Operations Plan prior to the interview and had suggestions on how to improve it,” said Spengler.
That dedication to improvement has been prevalent throughout his tenure and has resulted in the whole community – especially businesses – in Lewis & Clark County taking proactive steps to become more prepared for all-hazards.
How has he made this happen? According to Spengler, “the most important part of my job is building relationships.”
Specifically, Spengler leverages his partnerships with the Helena Chamber of Commerce and the Helena Business Improvement District (BID) to encourage businesses to conduct disaster preparedness planning and exercises and to develop continuity of operations plans. Spengler has also worked with the Business Improvement District and its members to designate their space as a back-up Joint Information Center. He has also added local businesses to the county’s Local Emergency Preparedness Committee, a group that meets regularly to plan and coordinate responses to all-hazards in the county.
Building relationships with business partners prior to incidents is one of his priorities because, “businesses are not only important for economic viability, they play a large role in recovery.”
While Spengler has seen much success in his career as an emergency manager, it hasn’t been without challenges. At times, he is frustrated by the uphill battle to change people’s behavior and to encourage business and personal preparedness and mitigation. “It is one thing to talk to them, but a big jump to get them to take action. Persistence has been the key to seeing movement,” he emphasized.
In addition to persistence, the importance of Spengler’s preparedness message has also been underscored by disasters. “One of the most challenging disasters I have faced in my career was a train explosion across from Carroll College in downtown Helena in 1989,” he said. During the response and recovery to that incident, emergency responders confronted various complexities including, but not limited to: concern about a possible toxic chemical release, frigid temperatures reaching 30 degrees below zero, power outages and communications disruptions.
After they made it out of the initial response phase, one of the County Commissioners commented that during a table-top exercise conducted by Spengler, she often thought his comments were unrealistic, but this incident quickly changed her mind. “Once we dealt with the various challenges and the complexities associated with the train explosion, it was a lot easier to get stakeholders engaged and receptive to preparedness messaging and exercises,” emphasized Spangler.
Spengler, 74, is often asked when he plans to retire.
“I have the best job in the state,” he says. “I have no plans to retire anytime soon.”
That’s good news for business owners and residents in Lewis & Clark County.