Buckley's Whitebird: 'I really want to put my best' into Ford County EMA job

PAXTON — If needed, Terry Whitebird said he will willingly step down from his volunteer roles as a trustee for the Buckley Village Board, office helper for the Iroquois County Emergency Management Agency and secretary and training officer for the Paxton Emergency Management Agency when he begins his new job as director of the Ford County Emergency Management Agency.

His first priority, the 49-year-old Buckley resident said, will be the Ford County EMA.

“I’m very thankful for the opportunity to do this, and I really want to put my best into it and help the citizens of Ford County,” Whitebird said. “I’ll put in as much time for it as needed.”

The Ford County Board’s finance committee voted 4-0 Thursday morning to recommend the full 12-member board hire Whitebird as EMA director, a position that has been vacant since last June, when Gibson City resident Dennis Higgins resigned from the job.

After the board approves the hire Monday night, Whitebird plans to get right to work. He said his focus will be on getting the agency’s office in order, getting to know the various first-responders in the county and, perhaps most important, preparing an emergency operations plan in order to eventually get the agency accredited by the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, hopefully as early as a couple of years from now.

Paxton EMA Director Ed Hanson said he expects Whitebird — who has been a volunteer for the Paxton EMA for about eight years, including for the past six years as its secretary and since December as its training officer — to be “really good at” his new job.

“He’s a go-getter when it comes to this kind of stuff,” Hanson said, “and he has the knowledge of emergency management, what it’s all about.”

Hanson is particularly hopeful that Whitebird can get the Ford County EMA accredited in upcoming years, which would finally allow the Paxton EMA to obtain accreditation, too. The Paxton EMA has been working to become accredited for more than a year; however, “the county has to be accredited before we can be accredited,” Hanson noted.

“It’s going to be a process,” Hanson said, mimicking Whitebird’s belief that it could be “at least two years,” maybe even as late as 2022, before the Ford County EMA receives its accreditation. “It won’t be overnight, but we can really start working on that now. ... We’ll all work together and get it all done. I think it’s really going to be a good thing for the county and us.”

Whitebird said his new job will involve a lot of paperwork and attending various meetings. Whitebird said it will also involve collaborating with other agencies, such as fire and police departments, so he hopes to “build a chain of assistance across departments.”

“I’m hoping to be able to bridge the gap and get more people involved — just getting my name out there and working with everybody who wants to work with me, even Mr. Higgins,” Whitebird said.

Whitebird knows the job could end up being pretty demanding, especially early on. With that in mind, he said he would step down from his volunteer positions with the Paxton EMA, Iroquois County EMA and Buckley Village Board if he needs to focus more time on his Ford County EMA duties.

Whitebird has been a trustee on the Buckley Village Board since “2010 or 2011,” he said, and is seeking another four-year term in April’s consolidated election. Since February 2018, Whitebird also has volunteered as an office worker for the Iroquois County EMA, working at the Watseka-based agency about two days a week. Through his roles in both the Iroquois County EMA and Paxton EMA, he has completed various trainings for emergency management and has done much paperwork, including grant writing, he said.

Whitebird was selected for the Ford County EMA job from among applicants who were interviewed by the county board’s insurance and personnel committee. Whitebird is to be hired for a four-year term, with the part-time position coming with no benefits.

As director, Whitebird will be required to keep expenses within the EMA’s budget and use his own personal vehicle with mileage being reimbursed only when he uses it to go to and from work-related incidents and only when notified by dispatchers.

A $9,000 annual combined salary was set for Whitebird and an assistant director whom he plans to hire: Kevin Turner, who already serves as the Paxton EMA’s assistant director.

Whitebird is a native of Grand Forks, the third-largest city in North Dakota. In summer 2000, he moved to Rantoul, then later lived in Rankin from 2001 to 2007 and then in rural Gifford from 2007 to spring 2009. He and his wife of 23 years, Susan, moved to her native Buckley in 2009 and have lived there ever since.

In 1989, the day after he graduated from Grand Forks Central High School, Whitebird was struck by a vehicle traveling 65 mph while he was walking in a crosswalk a couple of blocks from his home in Grand Forks.

The accident is why he continues to walk using a cane today.

“My right leg is half an inch shorter (than my left leg),” Whitebird said, explaining that “the force of the vehicle hitting me pushed my hip in and up.”

“I also have some spinal issues that are believed to have come from that. I was laid up for a year and a half and had to learn how to walk again.”

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