Nobles County's sheriff, fire chiefs want EM office moved to Prairie Justice Center

WORTHINGTON -- For the third time in recent years, Nobles County Sheriff Kent Wilkening will make an appeal to commissioners during Tuesday's board meeting to have the county Emergency Management director's office moved to the Prairie Justice Cen...

WORTHINGTON -- For the third time in recent years, Nobles County Sheriff Kent Wilkening will make an appeal to commissioners during Tuesday's board meeting to have the county Emergency Management director's office moved to the Prairie Justice Center (PJC).

The request has the support of the county's 10 fire departments and two ambulance services, as well as township and city leaders.

"I'm asking that (the position) be moved out to my office and under my direction," said Wilkening on Thursday. He made an initial request for that to happen in 2004, and again in 2006.

"At that time, I had letters of support from the county EMPAC (Emergency Management Planning Advisory Commission) and they again turned me down and left it downtown under the control of the county administrator," Wilkening said.

Moving the emergency management headquarters to the PJC makes sense, said Wilkening. The duties of the job have the person working closely with law enforcement and dispatch.


"We need some consistency and we need something that's going to be long-term," Wilkening said. "We can't keep going through EM directors."

On Wednesday night, during a gathering at the fire hall in Worthington, local fire chief Rick von Holdt said, "We want the emergency management director under the sheriff's department -- that way we wouldn't have the problem of EM directors coming and going because they don't live up to (Nobles County Administrator Mel Ruppert's) expectations. They've all worked for us."

The last EM director, Emily Cenzano, was dismissed on March 1 after serving at the helm just shy of one year. Prior to that, Dan Anderson held the post for 4 1/2 years. He left when the job was cut from full- to three-fifths time in January 2011.

Von Holdt said he has support from several communities to move the EM office to the PJC. A petition he started, signed by fire chiefs, assistant fire chiefs and ambulance personnel, will be sent to all five Nobles County commissioners.

"(The EM director) would have all the resources they need out there, too," said von Holdt. "There's a lot more flexibility. Under the rule of the sheriff's department, our problems will be over with, I feel."

By state statute, county commissioners must appoint an emergency manager and assistant emergency manager. Ruppert has served as the assistant emergency manager for years; however, fire chiefs contend he has done nothing in that post during the times the county has been without a director.

"He's had no contact with us in between emergency management directors," said von Holdt.

It was brought to light again when Cenzano was dismissed and the county administration office said Ruppert would be out of the office until March 12.


"(Ruppert) took a vacation -- who's minding the store?" von Holdt asked.

"If we would have a tornado hit and wipe out a town, we should have had someone in charge, but we didn't," added Bigelow Fire Chief Paul Hohensee.

While von Holdt said Wilkening is resourceful and could take the lead should an emergency occur, Wilkening said he has his own job to do. He plans to seek approval from county commissioners to appoint a deputy to the post, if one is interested. Wilkening then would request to be the assistant emergency manager.

"If one of my deputies were appointed, I have other duties they could do," said Wilkening, adding that between the two jobs it could be a full-time position.

"They could be doing court security, which we need, too," he said. "If I didn't have anybody that was interested in becoming the EM director, I'd ask that (commissioners) ... advertise for an EM director, but be under my control."

If a deputy is interested in the job, Wilkening would then request an additional deputy be hired for the department.

"I can't just have one of my guys appointed emergency manager and pull them off the road -- I'd be one person short," he said.

Time to act


One need only to look back to March 1998, when a tornado that started in western Nobles County traveled cross country and devastated Comfrey and St. Peter, to know that now is not the time to be without an emergency management director.

"I don't want to scare people, but we have the potential," said Wilkening. "If something like that would happen now, my office and I are going to do what we have to do, but I'm going to do my sheriff things. I don't have time to do the things that the emergency management director has to do -- they make the coordination with the state, the feds. They're going to be running the EOC (Emergency Operations Center).

"We'll do what we have to do, but we still need that person there for that coordination," he added. "It's vitally important we have somebody who knows what they're doing in that position."

Integral position

The fire chiefs said they are the ones to suffer the impact when the county is without an emergency management director. The director organizes trainings for departments, writes grants for equipment, attends networking meetings and serves as the "go-to" person in the event of a disaster.

Kim Chapa, Ellsworth Fire Chief, said the EM director even sent text messages to the chiefs to alert them to potential severe weather -- something he appreciated because he wasn't always aware of what was happening outside while he was at work.

The text messages, added Hohensee, helped them organize a response.

"We could go down to the fire hall and call our people in to go out and do spotting," Hohensee said. "Now, we have no one again."


The chiefs say they were able to accomplish quite a bit when Dan Anderson was in the post for 4 1/2 years. Not only was he certified to train firefighters -- saving the departments, and their small cities, thousands of dollars -- he also wrote grants for the county's ARMER (Allied Radio Matrix Emergency Response) system. Anderson is credited with bringing $550,000 in grant dollars into the county to pay for the portable radios for emergency responders.

"That saved Nobles County taxpayers," Hohensee said.

Cenzano was equally as qualified to lead the emergency services volunteers, and in fact coordinated an emergency response drill last September with a wind energy company at a turbine site north of Rushmore. She wasn't in the position long enough, however, to have as great an impact.

"(Cenzano and Anderson) both knew the ARMER system," said Chapa. "Emily had resources -- she could have people come down and help us get used to the ARMER system. We start getting comfortable and then we have to start all over again."

"The emergency management director helps with all the grants that are out there -- we're not aware of them," Hohensee added. "The director knows who to contact for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) -- we don't."

"We're obviously losing money for training, supplies and grants," said von Holdt. "We can't keep dealing with this. We're all volunteers."

Hohensee said the fire chiefs of Nobles County are questioning the county commissioners' decision to dismiss Cenzano, and he said the public should take a look at what commissioners stand for in the next election.

"We're looking for leaders to serve the people of Nobles County," added von Holdt.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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