For the most part, life is just one big uncertainty, but one group of professionals tries to plan for all contingencies, every emergency and all possible scenarios.
Emergency managers make the plans, fine-tunes the plans and when it all goes wrong, implement the plans.
“We make plans every year; we have plans for everything — hazardous materials and natural disasters — but when you throw in a pandemic … there’s no plan for a pandemic,” said Sarah Gillen, Valencia County emergency manager. “We’ve been working off the cuff since March.”
While a highly contagious disease hadn’t hit the county in the two years since Gillen was hired, there have been other incidents that gave her experiences many other emergency managers never have.
In July 2018, the Highline Canal breached for a second time, sending millions of gallons of water and silt cascading through the streets of the city of Belen, down roads and into homes in unincorporated areas of the county.
Then a wildland fire scorched nearly 140 acres and destroyed three homes on both sides of the Rio Grande in the spring of 2019.
“In the two years I’ve done this job, I’ve done a flood, I’ve done a fire and now I’ve done a pandemic. I’ve had some big ones,” she said. “That’s kind of unheard of because there’s people in emergency management who have never seen a major disaster in their whole career.”
Her experiences prepared her well, and her efforts during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic haven’t gone unnoticed, earning her the honor of being one of the 2020 Valencia County News-Bulletin’s Unsung Heroes.
Her coworker, Angie Womack, the records clerk for the county, nominated Gillen for the recognition, saying she has surpassed her duties as emergency manager to help educate, prepare and respond to the residents and businesses of the county from day one of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“She has delivered masks, gloves, gowns, buckets of hand sanitizer and disinfecting spray to child-care facilities, assisted living facilities, medical offices, both the Belen and Los Lunas school districts and small businesses in need,” Womack said.
When she isn’t answering calls at all hours of the day and night, answering questions about possible exposures and getting updated information from the department of health to share with the community, Womack said Gillen spends her time in her office generating reports for the county’s COVID-19 incident commander, Valencia County Fire Chief Brian Culp.
“These reports are crucial to the day-to-day operations to make sure the county is doing all it can to keep residents safe,” Womack said. “Seeing how brave and relentless she is in her handling of the situation, we can only expect to see her grow and be the phenomenal emergency manager we know she is.”
Gillen’s career has always been centered around service and emergency services. She’s been an EMT, a member of the military police for 7 1/2 years, an EMT again, a corrections officer, then an EMT one more time.
“My body started to break down and I knew I couldn’t do that anymore,” she said.
She found an online emergency management program through Eastern New Mexico University and the rest was history. Just three months away from finishing her degree, Valencia County hired her.
“And that’s kind of unheard of; bringing on a student into that position,” she said.
Being the emergency manager allows Gillen to help the community, she said, is a niche she’s found for herself.
“I’ve always been in the service kind of field. Either it’s fire or EMS or health care. Whatever I do, I will always be in some sort of service role,” she said. “This is kind of my calling, I guess.”
For the most part, Gillen’s role with the county is plan and wait. Emergencies don’t happen every day and they aren’t scheduled. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s always something to do.
“What do I do day-to-day? It just depends,” Gillen says with a laugh.
On Thursdays, she’s usually out on the road, delivering boxes of masks and 5-gallon buckets of hand sanitizer to local school districts, hauling election supplies from the secretary of state out to polling locations — whatever needs to be done.
The rest of the week, she’s planning and writing reports, answering calls, returning emails and scheduling COVID-19 test events. Gillen also updated the county’s comprehensive emergency plan to include responding to a pandemic.
“Prior to that, we didn’t have anything in writing,” she said. “When this all started, we were all kind of shooting from the hip; no one knew what we were dealing with.”
The emergency management department is attached to the Valencia County Fire Department, so Gillen works closely with Culp and the assistant fire chiefs for the department.
“His crew and me, we’ve all been working together as a great team. That’s one thing I have to say — and it’s weird — but probably the best thing that ever happened was the pandemic,” she said. “Brian and I have always had a lot of mutual respect for each other, but we finally figured out how to work together as a team.”
Pandemic or not, Gillen will continue to plan for the worst the world can throw at Valencia County in an effort to keep the community safe.
“You know, it’s a lot of grant writing, a lot of planning then putting plans into practice through exercises. Once you write a plan you have to make sure it doesn’t end up as a doorstop,” she said. “You never use them until you have a disaster. So, you knock off the dust and you deal with it, you know?
“I really don’t think of myself as a hero. I just wait for the phone to ring.”
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.