Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

January 25, 2013

Thomas to retire as EMA director

Bill Grimes
Effingham Daily News

EFFINGHAM — Russ Thomas could have retired last year as director of the Effingham County Emergency Management Agency.

But Thomas, who turned 66 last month, is finishing out his term as president of the Illinois Association of Emergency Management Agencies. Once that term has expired, however, he is retiring as the county's longtime EMA chief, effective June 30.

Thomas announced his retirement Thursday at the County Board's Public Safety Committee meeting. He told committee members he wanted to give them plenty of time to find a replacement.

"This gives me time to train him or her," Thomas said.

Thomas said his successor should be well-versed in electronics and emergency management techniques.

"He will have to be kind of a techno geek," he said. "He's got to know all about equipment, and he's got to be able to sit in front of a computer for hours at a time to do paperwork."

Thomas told the committee he's not completely going away.

"After I retire, I will stay on as an emergency management volunteer," he said. "It's been a real pleasure serving the people of Effingham County."

County officials told Thomas he would be missed.

"I don't know how we're going to replace you," said board member David Campbell. "Do you have a twin brother or sister?"

Board member Rob Arnold suggested Thomas should be involved in the search for a successor. Thomas said three county EMA volunteers have already expressed an interest in the job, which pays about $40,000 per year.

Thomas said after the meeting that his interest in emergency management came from his interest in electronics. After graduating from Stewardson-Strasburg High School, Thomas attended an electronics school in Louisville, Ky., for two years before joining the Navy during the height of the Vietnam War era.

After four years in the Navy, Thomas ran the first-ever Radio Shack in Effingham before opening a citizens band radio shop in 1975. As time went on, he began taking emergency management classes.

Thomas said the emergency management push in Effingham County began in earnest after a big train wreck in 1995.

"The organizational response to that wreck didn't go well," he recalled. "When (the late) Mark Percival became chairman of the county board, he approached me about becoming a part-time EMA director."

Thomas continued to run the CB Shop for several years after becoming a part-time EMA chief in 1997. Then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and a renewed interest in emergency management.

"There was so much grant money coming in that I went to the board and asked them to either let me hire an assistant or allow me to work full time," he said.

The board chose the latter and Thomas went full time in 2004.

Thomas said there's no doubt he'll miss the job.

"I'll particularly miss working with volunteer firefighters," he said. "They give so much to their communities, and it's a good feeling to know I can help them out. I will also miss the friends I've made in the emergency management community."

Thomas' work is so well respected that the county's Emergency Operations Plan is used as a template for other counties throughout the state.

Bill Grimes can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 132, or at bill.grimes@effinghamdailynews.com.