Barry Halling of Adel has seen his share of disasters in his 42-year career in public safety, including the last 24 years spent as coordinator of the Dallas County Office of Emergency Management.
He ticks them off as he talks — the floods of 1993, the Woodward tornado of 2005, the floods of 2008, the bird flu of 2015 and many others. Through all the emergencies, including the world-changing events of Sept. 11, 2001, which sent shock waves all the way to Dallas County, Halling has been the calm voice on the radio and the steady hand on the rudder.
He was thanked Friday for his four decades of public service by about 100 people who attended his retirement party in the community room of the Dallas County Human Services Campus. Halling was also thanked — in public and on behalf of the public — by the Dallas County Sheriff’s Communications Center.
“Attention, 25-80 from Dallas,” the dispatcher said at 3 p.m. Friday, “Today we celebrate the retirement of Barry Halling, Emergency Management Director. Barry, you have served with distinction the citizens of Dallas County for the past 42 years.”
A respectful silence held as the dispatcher said, “25-80, this is your final call. Barry, you will be missed but not forgotten. We wish you a happy retirement.”
Halling’s service was further recognized and rewarded with a series of honorary presentations, including plaques and awards from Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Operations Division Administrator V. Joyce Flinn, Iowa Emergency Management Association President Dave. C. Wilson and Dallas County Sheriff Chad Leonard.
Unlooked for thanks came with the surprise appearance of Halling’s son, U.S. Navy Lt. William “Gilly” Halling, who presented his father with a U.S. flag flown from above the Dallas County Courthouse. Lt. Halling came to the party directly from the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which returned Thursday to its home port of San Diego, Calif., after a three-month deployment in the Indo-Pacific.
The sailor embraced in turn his father, his mother, Eileen “Pooch” Halling, and his younger brother, Matt Halling, to the sustained applause of the delighted partygoers.
Asked earlier in the week whether he would miss the responsibility of emergency management, Barry Halling was philosophical about his circumstances.
“For a few weeks it’ll be kind of like with the ambulance service,” he said. “You know, you can hear the tones go off on the scanner, and you sit up in bed and go, ‘Huh. Well, I don’t work there anymore. I don’t have to get up at oh-dark-thirty and go drag somebody out of a car or a bar or whatever.’ So yeah, it’ll be a little bit of an adjustment but not that much.”
Halling’s career in public safety started in 1976 when he joined the Perry Volunteer Fire Department. He moved to Adel in 1977 and joined the Dallas County Ambulance Service — now known as the Dallas County EMS — and also the Adel Volunteer Fire Department. He moved from EMS after 17 years to become the first director of the Dallas County Office of Emergency Management when the office was created in 1994.
As emergency management coordinator, Halling did not work directly for the county but for the Dallas County Emergency Management Commission, which is composed of the 18 mayors in Dallas County plus one Dallas County Supervisor and the Dallas County Sheriff. He said the coordinator’s portfolio has thickened over a quarter-century.
“In my department, there are a lot of things that have started, really, since Oklahoma City,” said Halling, referring to the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building by anti-government extremists, the deadliest incident of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. “It used to be, when I started this in 1994 working as the emergency management coordinator, it was tornados, floods, snow storms, big, major fires and stuff like that. Now we’ve added all this other stuff, too. It’s stuff you see on TV every night, whether it’s somebody shooting somebody someplace, in a school or a church or wherever, mass murder.”
As part of his routine duties, Halling regularly updated county emergency plans, managed the county emergency operations center, coordinated HazMat responses and helped coordinate emergency responses. He also assisted cities, school districts and private-sector entities with their emergency planning.
As if this were not enough to fill a 40-hour work week, Halling also sat on a number of committees, including the County 911 Committee, County Fire Association, County EMS Committee, County Safety Committee, County Wellness Committee and the Courthouse Security Committee.
“I’m getting older,” he said, “and it’s time for a younger person or a different person to take over. I just hope the next person is smarter and better and does things better than I did. I did them as best I could, and there are a lot of ways to do things, and we could do better if we had the staff and the funding.”
Halling said his office “could easily keep one or two more busy” as full-time staffers. He noted the Jasper County Office of Emergency Management employs three full-time staff members, Pottawattamie County four, Polk County five, and Story County employs two people and is looking to hire another. In Dallas County, however, Halling is it.
“It’s just me,” he said. “I’ve tried for seven or eight years to get that done. My commission’s all for it but when it gets to the money level, things don’t turn out like they’re supposed to. So I’ve been doing it by myself.”
Halling said the future of the coordinator’s office will depend largely on the county’s response to its own rapid growth and its commitment to disaster planning and preparedness. He used fire protection as an example and the challenge of staffing volunteer fire departments when the volunteers all work in Des Moines during the daytime.
“Forty years ago, you had more volunteers that were able to show up,” he said. “It’s not that you can’t get the volunteers. It’s that the volunteers work in some other town, and they just can’t be there. It’s a problem all over, and it’s a problem that we should sit down and start to talk about as the county gets bigger. In three or four years, we’re going to be between 95,000 or 100,000, and we need to figure out how we’re going to get fire trucks to houses quicker.”
He might not have readymade solutions to this and similar problems, but Halling knows how to go about solving them.
“I don’t have any magical crystal ball on how this is supposed to work,” he said. “But you sit down and say, ‘How do we provide the best fire protection for the 100,000 people who now live in this county and growing at 3,000 people a year?’ It’s a long-term thing that you build up. This would probably take four or five or six years or more to figure how you’re going to do this and how you’re going to pay for it. Are you going to have staff stations around the county? I don’t know. There’s a million ways to do it. It’s time to start the discussion.”
Halling applies the same logic to all the potential efforts for disaster preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation in Dallas County.
“There’s just a ton of things we could do in this county to make it safer for the residents of the county and be able to better serve them,” he said. “The people will never know the difference until something happens, and then they’ll know the difference. We can’t get by with thinking it’ll never happen here. Parkland, Fla., the city where that shooting at the high school happened, was voted the safest city in Florida. Well, oops! it happened. So it could happen at any time. It could happen tomorrow.”
If it happens tomorrow, however, it will not be on Halling’s watch. He said his retirement plans are “nothing special. We’ll stay around here. I’ve lived here all my life. I’ll go out and help the brothers on the farm and do those kind of things. I’m sure there’s honey-do stuff to do around here and on the farm, so I’m sure there’ll be plenty to do.”
In fact, Halling was already busy early the next morning, flipping pancakes as part of the breakfast-cooking team at Saturday’s Washington Township School fundraiser. Now the hard work is faced by the Emergency Management Commission, which must seek Halling’s successor in a position that no one has ever held but him.