Crawford County’s judge has chosen a former intern to succeed him at the department of emergency management.
Brad Thomas has been chosen to replace Dennis Gilstrap as Crawford County Department of Emergency Management director. Thomas formerly interned for Gilstrap, who was elected as the new Crawford County judge.
Taking on the position of director will provide Thomas a stable position closer to home doing what he loves, he said. Thomas lives in Alma and has been a Crawford County resident his entire life, he said.
“I’ve always wanted to help people and I always wanted to be in the emergency management field,” Thomas said.
Thomas graduated in 2012 from Arkansas Tech University with a bachelor of science degree in emergency management. During his senior year, Thomas did 400 hours of his internship at the CCDEM.
One of the reasons Gilstrap selected Thomas to replace him, he said, is because Thomas has no background in police, fire, or emergency medical services.
Gilstrap feels this will give Thomas a more balanced approach to the position, he said. Gilstrap spent 25 years of his own background in the Van Buren Fire Department.
“That was something I felt like I was continually wanting to show, was that I supported law enforcement and I supported EMS and other agencies,” Gilstrap said. “I felt like a person with a degree in emergency management would not have those battles to fight.”
Thomas is coming to the CCDEM from the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, where he worked on an at-need basis since he graduated in 2012, he said.
In following Gilstrap, Thomas has “huge shoes to fill,” he said.
As director, Gilstrap was the only paid employee working at the CCDEM. Volunteers have grown from five in 2001 to an active 30 today, Gilstrap said.
Gilstrap was hired Jan. 18, 2001, to run the CCDEM part time – just months before 9/11. After the terrorist attacks, Gilstrap became a full time employee with the goal of updating and expanding the CCDEM, he said.
“When the events of 9/11 happened, the quorum court asked me if I would consider going to a full time position,” Gilstrap said. “They had the foresight to see that basically, our world had changed.”
After the attacks, more federal grants were made available to emergency response departments for equipment and training, and Gilstrap took advantage.
At first, all grants were going to about 10 of the 75 counties in the state, Gilstrap said. To receive grants, counties had to have a HAZMAT team and a mutual aide agreement with surrounding counties.
Gilstrap had the mutual aide agreement, and he soon coordinated with city mayors who each signed an agreement to help financially support the HAZMAT program.
Crawford County received its first grant in 2003, which was $187,000 for additional HAZMAT equipment.
“We have gotten, through grants, probably $3 million,” Gilstrap said.
Crawford County Search and Rescue was placed under the umbrella of the CCDEM during Gilstrap’s tenure. The county in 2009 also was given what was formerly the National Guard Armory in Van Buren, which is currently being used as its emergency operations center.
“It gave us a place to put all the equipment together and a place for (volunteers) to train,” Gilstrap said.
Money from the grants was used to remodel the EOC for its new use, for equip for all CCDEM projects – including search and rescue and area fire and police departments – and volunteers, training, and the mobile emergency management response vehicle.
Much of that grant money has petered away, making Thomas’ job more difficult, Gilstrap said.
“I want him to continue to work on the grant program,” Gilstrap said. “It’s not as easy. The grants don’t come as available – the money’s not there, the funding like it was. As it stands right now, Brad won’t have the opportunity to get the grants I have.”
Thomas has traveled with Gilstrap the past several months meeting contacts throughout the county and state, Gilstrap said, and they will continue to work together in their selective roles.
“I’ve had the fortune to go around the state with (Gilstrap),” Thomas said. “When he spoke, people listened – and it was out of respect.”
Gilstrap expressed confidence in Thomas’ ability to run the emergency management department.
“Brad has, I think he has the personality to work with these folks, I think he has the willingness to work with these folks, and he’s already met a lot of them,” Gilstrap said.
Gilstrap had his way of handling situations, he said, but they may not always have been the right way.
“I think it’s time and good to have fresh eyes on it,” Gilstrap said.
Thomas disagreed with Gilstrap’s assertion. Gilstrap could not have left the emergency department in better condition, Thomas said.
“The Dennis Gilstrap way is a pretty good way. It speaks for itself right here, what you’re looking at around this building,” Thomas said, referencing the EOC.
As director, Thomas said his priorities are to grow search and rescue, bring in younger recruits and update the mobile EOC unit. He also will be training and working to get certified in floodplain management and HAZMAT.