Serving the Loup Valley for 140 Years

Region 26: The Calm Before the Storm

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Kate Wolf photo

PICTURED: (l-r): Region 26 Office Manager Virginia Michalski, Director Alma Beland and Dispatcher Libby Burk take time from their very busy schedules to visit with the Quiz about critical work Region 26 does around the clock, every day of the week.

   By Kate Wolf

   On a quiet street in the little town of Taylor, NE there is a small, nondescript building that gives scarcely a clue about the actual importance of the structure.  The sign out in front identifies it as “Region 26 Emergency Management and 911 Communications”. Still, it looks like no big deal. You could easily mistake it for a simple office.

   Upon entering the building however, those first impressions are completely dashed. It becomes abundantly clear that you have just entered a high security, complex government building.  The windows are blast proof and the structure itself is concrete construction. The “brain” of Region 26 is housed in a special climate-controlled room with generators so powerful they can ensure that 911 service will never be interrupted.

   The dispatcher’s control room alone looks a little bit like the Bridge of the Starship Enterprise or, perhaps, the control tower of an international airport on steroids. Each of three stations has up to seven different large monitor screens displaying a variety of critical information at all times.  Computer Assisted Dispatch (CAD) is very complicated, extremely high-tech, and more than a little overwhelming.

   This is Region 26….the center covering the largest area in the state for 911 calls and Emergency Management, as well as the only one of its kind in Nebraska.  It was established in 1971 and comprises Thomas, Blaine, Loup, Garfield, Wheeler, Greeley, Valley and Sherman counties.  Its mission is to provide the citizens and visitors to our area with a dependable, rapid system of emergency communication response when called upon for assistance with fires, rescue and law enforcement.

   Director Alma Beland coordinates the efforts of 21 fire departments, 16 ambulance squads and 12 law enforcement agencies including county sheriffs and municipal police forces, as well as town sirens during emergencies.  She also works alongside and with other agencies such as the Nebraska State Patrol, FEMA, NEMA, the National Weather Service, Game and Parks, Air ambulances, National Guard units and others depending on the emergency.  Alma Beland is one very busy woman but she is always open to conducting tours of the facility she is so very proud of, especially for children.  Just call the Region 26 office at 308-942-3461 to make arrangements. 

   Besides Director Beland, the board members who oversee all of this important activity are:  Tom Bandur (Sherman Co.), Roger Guggenmous (Blaine Co.), Diana Hurlburt (Garfield Co.), Jack VanSlyke (Valley Co.), Jay Meyer (Tri-County Municipalities), Jack Ruppel (Loup Co.), Joseph Smith (Thomas Co.), Jordan Folz (Greeley Co.), Doug Pokorny (Wheeler Co.), Doug Reiter (Range County Municipalities), and Dave Weeks (Criminal Justice Board).

   “We have an important job to do here and we would like people to understand what we do in these communities,” Beland remarked.  “We are the first of the First Responders.”  And it’s true….they are certified telecommunicators.  If something goes wrong with communications, it goes wrong everywhere else down the line.  The importance of their role in rapid, efficient emergency response cannot be overstated.  They are the lifeline that holds it all together when lives hang in the balance.

   Beland’s staff of highly trained professionals includes: Virginia Michalski, office manager and dispatch supervisor; Donna Steckel, chief dispatcher of more than 40 years experience; Libby Burk, dispatcher and EMT on the Brewster squad; as well as Bailey Lurz, Caden Johnson, Roxannie Payne, Miki Gerten, and Courtney Rooney, all dispatchers.

   “They are a great team and they support each other,” Beland praised her staff. They get no breaks during their long shifts and literally everything is recorded and later reviewed.

   Be assured, this is not an easy job.  The training and continuing education is very intense.  They must be able to remain calm under a significant amount of pressure and have the ability to take control of the 911 call in stressful situations, as well as keeping the caller calm.  Dispatchers receive a variety of emergency reports varying from car accidents to criminal acts in progress and then coordinate the appropriate emergency response within a matter of seconds.  One or two Dispatchers remain on duty around the clock and they manage approximately 275-300 emergency calls each month.

   “There was a lot to learn and things are constantly being upgraded and changing,” commented Dispatcher Libby Burk.  “The most challenging aspect of the job is during heavy weather with multiple fires and getting all of the data for multiple fire departments who are all responding.”  At a recent fire in Blaine County, the efforts of at least 20 different fire departments needed to be coordinated.

   “We get a lot of radio calls throughout every emergency,” Beland noted.  They often manage multiple emergency situations at once and they can hear the urgency in those voices pleading for help.

   Many times, Region 26 doesn’t even find out the outcome of the calls they have managed.  Fire and rescue, law enforcement and EMT’s are who the 911 callers get to see during a crisis.  They never get to see the faces of those who actually put their rescue into motion, the ones who made it happen.

   “Sometimes we’d like to know….did we make a difference?” Beland wondered.

   The Emergency Management part of Region 26, opposite the dispatchers control room, fulfills many duties such as finding mutual aid and resources, reporting every disaster to NEMA, upgrading 911 equipment and monitoring 911 addresses, arranging for specific training for fire and police, monitoring fire alarms in schools, nursing homes and other critical facilities, weather support, “badging” and credentialing for rescue workers, volunteers and fire trucks.  They also coordinate the efforts of other agencies, set up “incident command”, manage aftermath and recovery, as well as mitigation to keep a disaster from happening again. They monitor nine owned communication towers along with twelve other established towers containing Region 26 communications equipment.  In addition, the run license plates for law enforcement, check drivers licenses, enter warrants and keep track of both gun and burn permits. They maintain a Regional Emergency Operations Center, where all the big decisions are made, endowed with eBeam smart technology, embedded in a wall that allows data to be saved and transmitted to the state.

   Region 26 also possesses an “Orion Assessment” tool, purchased with grant funds, that allows them to go to the scene of a disaster and assess damage with a hand-held device that has addresses, GPS, as well as other vital data and provides visual documentation.  They maintain a store room filled with PPE’s, body bags, cots, blankets and other items needed by law enforcement, rescue crews, ambulances and fire departments.  They launched a “codeRED” warning system in 2010 for residence and businesses to receive alerts on both land lines and cell phones free of charge.  They also have access to a National Warning Alert System (NAWSA)—an old vintage phone not used for any other purpose—that provides a direct “hot line” to the government.

   “Emergency Management is all about preparedness,” Beland explained.  “It’s up to us to bring the resources.”

   “They are our lifeline,” stated Valley County Sheriff Casey Hurlburt. “We couldn’t do our jobs without them.” Laurie Christensen, paramedic with Valley County Health System in Ord and a member of the North Loup-Scotia Rescue Unit, agreed.

   “Region 26 is the glue that communicates with and holds our communities together in times of need whether it be fire, rescue or law enforcement. Level heads dispatching creates great communication and positive outcomes.” Christensen remarked. “Our communities are blessed with such a great service.”

   Ord Fire Chief Larry Copp noted, “We are very fortunate to have a dispatch center so close and knows the area. They are very helpful when dispatching and getting us the information we need.”  North Loup-Scotia’s Fire Chief Daryl Jorgensen concurred. “They relay the information to us without putting confidential information out for the public,” he added. “They are fabulous.”

   Valley County Deputy Emergency Manager Scott Philbrick stressed, “They’re all overworked and underpaid.”  Philbrick strives to keep Region 26 informed of what’s going on in the area, such as the Ord Airport being out of service due to maintenance, because it might make a difference in resource availability.

   This also holds true for many area events attended by large crowds of people such as the Father’s Day Rod Run, the Valley County Fair or the Burwell Rodeo.  Region 26 has people planted in those crowds in order to establish communications just in case an emergency event or severe storm warnings occur. Region 26 is everywhere, carefully observing, constantly evaluating, keeping their eyes on the sky in the interest of public safety.

   The complete story is in the May 11 edition of The Ord Quiz.

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