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Departing emergency management director’s passion to protect started with storm spotting

Randy Duncan, Sedgwick County emergency management director, is leaving after 16 years on the job.
Randy Duncan, Sedgwick County emergency management director, is leaving after 16 years on the job. The Wichita Eagle

Randy Duncan needed a hobby.

When a co-worker at the Arkansas City Traveler newspaper suggested he become a storm spotter there in Cowley County, Duncan was hooked.

A self-proclaimed “adrenaline junkie,” Duncan rooted for Mother Nature’s worst. He enjoyed being a spotter so much that a few years later he applied for the vacant emergency management director’s position in Cowley County. He wanted to be in the middle of the action when natural disasters struck, he said.

But a funny thing happened to Duncan over 28 years in emergency management, the past 16 in Sedgwick County.

Where he once viewed nice, sunny days as “terrible” because there were no storms, he now considers pleasant weather a blessing.

Where he once saw bureaucratic regulations as a major headache, he now sees them as a valuable tool to bring order out of chaos.

“I have had the opportunity to see people at their best and worst,” said Duncan, 57, who stepped down as Sedgwick County’s emergency management director earlier this month to take a job in the private sector.

“Their best, when coming together and vowing to restore a community in the aftermath of an emergency or disaster – and at their worst when intentionally trying to kill as many as possible.”

Blocks from ground zero

Their worst, he said, was the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The dust was still settling from the attacks in New York when Duncan spent 10 days in Lower Manhattan helping coordinate search and recovery efforts from the rubble of the World Trade Center. He still has maps and minutes of meetings held early each morning just a few blocks from ground zero.

A plaque expressing appreciation from the New York Fire Department for his work there held a place of distinction in an office filled with mementos of a distinguished career.

“I don’t know what it was about the weather that was so compelling, other than really, really big stuff happened when the weather went wonky,” Duncan said. “It should have scared me, but for some reason it didn’t.”

That’s one of the reasons he loved emergency management, Duncan said. It allowed him to educate people “to be in a position to protect themselves and their loved ones.”

Duncan has already started his new job at Paradigm Liaison Services in Wichita, where he will train first responders on what to do when pipeline emergencies occur. In many ways, he said, it will be like what he’s been doing for nearly 30 years now: helping people know how to respond when disaster strikes.

‘The king’

Duncan’s impact in emergency management extended far beyond Sedgwick County, his peers said.

“We always think of Randy being the king” of emergency managers, Butler County Emergency Management director Jim Schmidt said. “That’s going to be a big loss for Sedgwick County.

“If you look at that department, it really became what it is today because of Randy,” Schmidt said. “There was a lot of great people before him, but I don’t think it got elevated to the importance that it needed to be until Randy came along.

“He’s one of those people who can make folks – elected officials and people in charge of the checkbook – understand what our profession is all about.”

Duncan had a knack for describing a severe weather threat or the need for new technology or services in a way people could understand – whether he was talking to legislators, administrators or the general public.

Part of that skill, Duncan said, comes from his early years in journalism. He worked briefly at a radio station before taking a job with the Arkansas City newspaper.

But something else also played a large role in developing his skill at breaking down complex issues into simple language.

“I had to explain stuff to my mother,” he said with a chuckle.

Duncan’s legacy

Two projects Duncan views as his legacy reflect that ability to connect with whatever audience he’s addressing and articulate value and need, Schmidt said: the Emergency Operations Center that opened in 2007 and Sedgwick County’s upgraded outdoor warning system.

“We all know that in emergency management … if nothing is really happening at the moment, things are forgotten until something major happens,” Schmidt said. “We don’t have an Andover or Haysville tornado every year, thank heavens. But we can’t let our guard down. We have to work every day that it’s going to happen in the next hour.”

Duncan downplays his role in the construction of the new operations center and the siren upgrades, which allow the activation of only those sirens inside a tornado warning’s geographic area instead of the entire county. He prefers to credit the Sedgwick County Commission and the county administration for recognizing the value of those investments.

Duncan worked hard for both because he knew they would be needed.

“One of the things that Randy taught me was that if you could imagine it, it probably can happen,” Schmidt said.

That’s why he’s long been a proponent of training – and lots of it. Duncan said his passion for preparation can be traced to a specific date: April 26, 1991, when large tornadoes struck Cowley, Sedgwick and Butler counties, killing nearly 20 people. Haysville, Wichita and Andover all sustained significant damage by an EF-5 tornado.

He was the Cowley County Emergency Management director then and was struck by the fact that the National Weather Service was warning of a “particularly dangerous situation” days ahead of time.

“I’m maybe looking hours ahead, and they’re looking days ahead,” he said. “I became very interested in planning and preparation so I don’t have to go from ‘steady state’ to ‘boom.’”

That preparation paid dividends when another large tornado struck Haysville and south Wichita in 1999 – just a year after Duncan took the helm at Sedgwick County Emergency Management.

Duncan’s desire to help people be better aware and more prepared when severe weather threatens prompted him to ask the National Weather Service for permission to give its annual storm spotter training talks at small towns around Sedgwick County. The weather service gives those annual presentations at one location in each of the 26 counties in its coverage area.

Other counties copied Duncan’s idea. Last spring, for instance, more than two dozen storm spotter training talks were given at locations around Butler County, Schmidt said.

A ‘wealth of knowledge’

Duncan is an encyclopedia of rules and regulations addressing the aftermath of natural disasters, his peers say. He can quote regulations the way baseball fans can quote statistics of their favorite pitchers or right fielders.

“He could just spout them off one after another,” Harvey County emergency management director Lon Buller said. “It was always amazing to me.”

Duncan was always quick to help other emergency managers around the state.

“He’s a wealth of knowledge,” said Vaughn Lorenson, Stanton County emergency management director in Johnson City and current president of the Kansas Emergency Management Association. “He’s always willing to put a foot out there and help.”

Though Johnson City is a speck on the map, little more than a dozen miles from the Colorado line in southwest Kansas, Lorenson said Duncan wouldn’t hesitate to help if he called.

Butler County didn’t even have an emergency management position when that massive tornado struck Andover and surrounding rural areas in 1991. The following June, Schmidt took charge of an office that had nothing more than a telephone, desk, filing cabinet and chair.

“We’ve grown a little since then,” Schmidt said. “The most important thing that I had here were those people who mentored me … spending hours and hours teaching me and guiding me and were there whenever I had a question.

“I’m just so tickled that I had Randy as a mentor.”

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @StanFinger.

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