Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series.
Durk Dunham says when he was younger he couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of retirement. He also never thought he’d live to be 50. But he did live and he has retired -- almost.
Dunham retired Dec. 16 as director of Calhoun County’s Emergency Management Department
after 14 years with the county.
He originally began working with the County’s Emergency Management department as a volunteer and since he is not quite ready to completely step away from the workaday world, he has agreed to once again serve in a volunteer capacity as one of three of the county’s Deputy Emergency Management Directors. He also will work part-time with a major local company in their security area.
He first volunteered while holding down his day job at Olivet College as Director of Admissions and Financial Aid and later as interim Vice President in the 1990s and serving as a firefighter with the city of Marshall.
The college was going through some major transitions at the time he was interim Vice President of Enrollment Management. He agreed to take the position with the understanding that once things had stabilized, he would go back to being Director of Admissions because he “loved that job and the students” he got to work with.
Director of Calhoun County’s Emergency Management Department Durk Dunham retied in December.
“My intention was to go back to being director of admissions,” Dunham says. “During the course of replacing three vice presidents and a president in a three-year span I decided to leave. Let’s just say I was opposed to what the new president stood for and who he was as a human being. I could either stay there and suck it up or leave with my morals and integrity intact and that’s what I did with the severance package I took in 1993.”
His departure marked the end of a long history with Olivet College that began while he was a student there. He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and would go on to work at a psychiatric hospital in Lansing, the former General Motors plant in Kalamazoo, at radio stations in Battle Creek, and the college.
Throughout these job changes, the one constant was his volunteer service with the County. That did not go unnoticed by former Calhoun County Sheriff Al Byam. The two were friends as well as work colleagues. He asked Dunham to become the Director of Emergency Management. In making the job offer, Dunham says Byam told him, “We’ve got some issues here and I want you to take care of them.”
It was a time when cell phones had not yet solidified their place as a necessity in people’s everyday lives and Dunham relied on police and fire radio and pagers to stay on top of potential emergency situations that would require emergency preparedness planning.
He was the only paid member of the Emergency Management Department and was supported by three volunteers who are sworn Sheriff’s deputies. Dunham says these volunteers “play an absolutely crucial role” alongside him. He says he would have liked to have had a part-time administrative assistant, but there was no funding for such a position.
“This is a tough job and there is a mountain of paperwork and federal, state, and local laws and regulations that go a mile deep,” Dunham says. “The requirements of this position are really formidable.”
Prior to 9-11, weather-related events were recognized by the Emergency Management department as among the highest risks in the County because they impacted every resident.
“Before 9-11, we chased weather. There were required components to this position, and things we had to do, but it wasn’t anything that was taxing. After 9-11 hit everything changed,” Dunham says. “If I had to put it on a sliding scale and start with 9-11, that’s when phone calls to our department gradually started to increase every year going forward. Because of more stipulations and regulations that have followed since 9-11, our workload has risen steadily. It’s a completely different operation now. It’s much, much more complex because society has become more complicated and more difficult.”
Director of Calhoun County’s Emergency Management Department Durk Dunham and the volunteers in his department have dealt with everything from bad weatther to the Enbridge oil spill to COVID-19.
The complexities and complications became even more challenging with the arrival of COVID-19 and the ensuing shutdowns throughout the County in March, 2020. Dunham was among city and county leadership who are part of the Joint Information Center that was formed in response to the pandemic. The JIC began hosting weekly virtual meetings to disseminate information about the virus and its ensuing variants, the number of COVID-related infections and deaths, and how key stakeholders were supporting efforts to manage the pandemic and take care of the needs of all residents. Dunham put his radio voice to use as the host for some of the more recent Joint Information Center meetings.
Prior to COVID, Dunham says the top major emergencies for the county were the Enbridge oil spill
in July 2010
and a severe storm
over the 2011 Memorial Day weekend.
“The Enbridge oil spill was the largest inland oil spill in the history of the United States,” Dunham says. “Ninety percent of Emergency Managers across the nation would never go through a crisis of that magnitude.”
Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Enbridge, and the Michigan State Police, worked alongside Dunham and other local leaders to manage the spill and the cleanup.
“There were textbooks and training materials written from the data gathered from that oil spill. People documented it very, very carefully,” Dunham says. “We had some of the world’s smartest scientists visiting this county after the oil spill happened and they used what they learned here to create a plan for the mitigation of future oil spills. We knew there was going to be an ending, and that it wouldn’t go on forever, and that we were going to clean the river up.”
Fortuitously, Dunham says an emergency incident like the oil spill was included in the county’s Hazard Mitigation Plan, which defines the 10 most likely risk-oriented disasters in Calhoun County.
Though the oil spill and the destructive 2011 Memorial Weekend storm taxed the Emergency Management department’s resources, Dunham says the pandemic has been the greatest challenge for him and his volunteer staff to manage.
On of the more challenging events of Durk Dunham's career as director of Calhoun County’s Emergency Management Department was dealing the Enbridge oil spill of 2011.
“With the pandemic, we don’t have an end in sight,” he says. “When the Delta variant emerged that was an eye-opener for anyone not involved in emergency management. Part of our challenge is to try to keep people in a positive frame of mind while trying to stay ahead of the virus and its variants. The pandemic has been a heavy lift.”
In addition to providing people with the most accurate and up-to-date information about COVID and its variants and addressing other emergencies impacting the county and its residents, Dunham has some standard messaging that he has consistently been sharing. He says a very huge part of his job is to communicate countywide about family emergency and disaster preparedness.
“A big part of my job responsibility is about keeping our residents, their kids, and their friends as safe as possible,” he says. “I ask questions like, ‘Do you have a flashlight and a case of water in the basement?’ What I am putting out there has never been more important at this time in the history of our country. People need to prepare for natural disasters and any situation that would affect their safety or the safety of family and friends. Because of our internet, there are resources like FEMA.gov that are fingertips away to tell you how to prepare.”
He says his message to residents is, “Each individual in this county has to take on the personal responsibility to mitigate risk for themselves, friends, loved ones, and pets. It’s a responsibility I would love people to take on that’s as important as brushing their teeth.”
He will continue to highlight the importance of having a plan in place for emergencies as he slides into the next phase of his life.
That he will miss the people he works with on a daily basis, is a given. He calls them “special human beings.”
But he knew it was time to step down when a sense of calm set in after he had made his decision.
“I remember through the years as an upper-level manager that I would start to see people retire and one of the things they used to say to me with this big, calm look on their faces was that ‘You will know when it’s time and you will feel it inside.’ It was a very calming feeling that said to me ‘it’s time’. I’m relaxed and ready and super-excited about what comes next.”