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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Bill Bebee, Izard County EMD: Have disaster? Will travel.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Izard County Emergency Management Director Bill Bebee is using his years of experience, working major disasters all over the country, to build a better system to help Izard County citizens in disaster situations. Photo by Richard Irby
A powerful earthquake in Japan.

The devastating tornado in Joplin, Missouri.

A large, unstoppable forest fire in Arizona.

When we hear of a huge disaster, most of us are anxious to see photos and learn of deaths or injuries.

But Bill Beebe immediately starts thinking about what's being done to save lives and protect the injured and homeless.

"I just start thinking about what the immediate needs must be and what would be the first things I would do if I was there," said Bebee.

Bebee, who came on board in January as Izard County Emergency Management Director, has more than 20 years experience responding to disasters all over the country.

"I grew up in a small town south of Helena," said Beebe, "and I went to the University of Arkansas Forestry School at Monticello."

His first job out of college was working as a forester in the Hardy area.

"I remember getting a call from my boss one night, telling me to meet him downtown (in Hardy)," Bebee recalls. "I asked what for and he told me there was a forest fire and we were going to put it out."

It was his first inkling that "fire suppression" was going to become a big part of his life.

According to Bebee, in the 1970s, Arkansas averaged 7,000 forest fires a year, one of the highest rates in the nation.

"We fought fires all the time and I started enjoying it," said Bebee.

Bebee also had a thing for Alaska and, after spending a summer there as a young adult, he vowed to live there one day.

After working for about nine years as a forester in Arkansas, Bebee landed a forestry job in Alaska and his family set out for the 49th state.

Initially, Bebee worked in land management, selling state land, dealing with water rights, and homesteading and timber sale programs.

As he progressed through the ranks, Bebee wound up as a Coastal Fire Management Officer, responsible for managing 115 million acres of south Alaska. His territory included Juneau, the state capitol and Anchorage, the most populous areas of the state, and some of the most remote wilderness areas, where fire is a constant threat.

"I began working extensively with the Division of Emergency Services and spent months traveling and working to control forest fires," Bebee said. "The "off season," winter months when snow set in, I would finally get back to the office and catch up on paperwork and management stuff."

Because of his experience working fires and other disasters in Alaska, Bebee found himself often heading to other western states and, after completing training as an Incident Command Specialist, Bebee's skills were even more in demand.

"I spent three weeks working in incident command at the "Biscuit fire," which began in Oregon and spread into Northern California," Bebee recalls. "It went on for months and was the costliest fire in U.S. history, $125 million."

He also worked the

"Robert fire" in Glacier National Park, Hurricane Alvin in Florida and Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, along with numerous floods in Alaska and elsewhere.

In 2001, one month after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, Bebee found himself in New York City.

"New York City emergency responders were well trained in handling short-term situations, four to six hours," Bebee explained. "They were not well versed in handling long-term disasters, like the one they had just experienced."

Bebee was on a team of incident command specialists who trained New York responders in how to plan and manage operations during a long-term disaster.

In the mid-90s, Bebee and his wife, Peggy, started thinking about moving back to Arkansas to escape Alaska's long, brutal winters.

They bought land in northwest Izard County and in 2004, after 23 years in Alaska, Bebee retired and moved back to his home state.

"One of the advantages of working in Alaska is, it has a lucrative retirement system, because it is hard to entice trained people to relocate to Alaska. I was able to retire early at almost full retirement," said Bebee.

Bebee said he decided to retire early in 2004, to miss working the Alaskan fire season.

"By July, I was back in Alaska fighting fires," he laughs.

Bebee found lots of work as a "hired gun," an incident command specialist who can go work fires and other disasters for a few weeks and come back home.

"I enjoy the work of responding to disaster situations, while not having to endure the paperwork and redtape managers face trying to get federal reimbursement, etc," said Beebe.

But Beebe has been off the road the past six months.

"Last year, my brother introduced me to his good friend, David Sherrell, who was running for county judge," said Bebee. "He asked me if I would be interested in serving as Emergency Management Director, if he won, and here I am."

Bebee acknowledges, he could make a lot more money just working in other states during the summer disaster season, but he is dedicated to his new full-time job in Izard County.

"I believe in David and what he wants to accomplish, developing a first rate emergency management system," Bebee explained.

In just five months on the job, Bebee and Sherrell are already working on three goals.

"We must get a modern, reliable communications system," said Bebee. "How we'll pay for it is still undetermined, but emergency responders must be able to communicate to do their job and we really don't have a choice. We're facing a federal deadline to meet new standards and time is running out."

Another project is to survey the county's road and bridge infrastructure and identify bridges that cannot safely carry firetrucks or ambulances, and roads that emergency vehicles cannot get down to respond to an emergency. The next step will be to seek grants and other aid to make improvements.

"I am also working to establish a network of shelters around the county to take in people in an emergency," said Bebee.

Shelter locations have been identified and managers have been appointed. Trained volunteers to assist in the operation of shelters will follow.

Bebee admits he still perks up when he hears of the big disasters he is trained to manage.

There has been talk that the National Area Command Team he is on may go to Japan to give long-term incident management training to Japanese emergency responders.

But, for now, Bebee is focused on improving the emergency management system which is supposed to protect the citizens of Izard County.

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