Dale Banker retires as county’s emergency management director

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 18 November 2022 at 12:57 pm

Justin Niederhofer, deputy director, appointed new ‘Orleans 1’

File photos by Tom Rivers: Dale Banker is pictured at a fire in Carlton on May 20, 2018. He retired on Monday after eight years as the Orleans County emergency management director.

ALBION – Dale Banker has retired after eight years as the Orleans County emergency management director, a tenure that saw him oversee the county’s response to two historic floods from Lake Ontario and an $11 million overhaul of the county’s emergency communications system.

Banker also was critical in the county’s efforts to bring PPE (personal protective equipment) and other supplies to municipalities during the Covid-19 pandemic.

He was praised by Orleans County legislators during Wednesday’s Legislature meeting, when he was presented with a certificate of appreciation for helping to see the community through several challenges.

“This brings to close a remarkable career in Orleans County,” said Lynne Johnson, County Legislature chairwoman.

Banker took the EMO position on July 14, 2014 after a 36-year career with the state Department of Transportation in Albion. The first 28 years he was an equipment operator before being promoted to highway maintenance supervisor in charge of equipment the last eight years.

Banker has had many all-nighters through his career, and always has had the pager close by, 24-7.

Banker said his wife Eileen has been very supportive during his career. She is the former mayor of Albion and the district director for Assemblyman Steve Hawley.

“I got to thank Eileen for putting up with night shifts for 36 winters and for the last 8 years of being on call all the time,” Banker said.

Hawley presented Banker with a citation from the State Assembly on Wednesday for a distinguished serving the local community for 44 years.

Photos by Tom Rivers: Officials from Orleans and Niagara counties held a news conference at Golden Hill State Park in Barker on April 22, 2019 with Lake Ontario as the backdrop. The lakeshore communities faced a second year of flooding and erosion damage after the high waters of 2017. Dale Banker, center, is director of the Orleans County Emergency Management Office. Lynne Johnson, Orleans County Legislature chairwoman, is next to Banker at right. Jon Schultz, director of the Niagara County Emergency Management Office, is left of Banker and Niagara County Legislator David Godfrey is back left.

The Legislature also appointed Justin Niederhofer, the deputy director the past 2 ½ years, to be the director of the Emergency Management Office or “Orleans 1.”

Niederhofer is a former Carlton fire chief and a current fire investigator for the county. He is a 20-year veteran of the Air Force with 11 years of Active duty and nine years in the Reserve. Before joining the EMO, he was working for the U.S. Department of Defense, leading a team of 10 in overseeing manufacturers with Defense contracts.

The emergency management director in the past would typically help to plan fire training classes for local fire departments. But it has become much more than that. Banker helped plan and guide two major radio system upgrades that totaled $10.7 million, with most of the projects funded by state grants. Those projects will improve the communications for first responders in the county.

Banker said the county is working on the last piece of that upgrade, which includes a new radio tower in Carlton and more equipment upgrades. He is hopeful there will be a grant announcement soon that will pay for most of the cost of the final phase of the project, which will be about $3 million.

Workers from Upstate Tower Inc. on Nov. 19, 2020 are shown doing the final work and inspections on a new 180-foot-high radio tower by the Orleans County Public Safety Building on Route 31. This is one of four new radio towers in the county as part of a $5.9 million upgrade to the emergency radio system.

Banker, 63, said he will continue as an active firefighter with the Albion Fire Department. He joined 47 years ago as an explorer when he was 15. He recently took his driver training for the fire trucks with Jeremy Babcock, an Albion firefighter who Banker trained as a fire truck driver more than a decade ago.

Banker and his wife are moving to Carlton, but Banker said he was to stay connected with the Albion FD until at least he reaches his 50-year anniversary with the department.

Banker said many of his closest friends are with the Albion FD. He has served with them for decades, including Harry Papponetti, Rn Armstrong and Richard Tibbits.

“It was very exciting,” he said about joining the Albion Fire Department. “To this day I have life-long friends.”

Banker was only 26 when he started as Albion fire chief. He served as the department’s leader from 1986 to 1992. He also was an Albion village trustee from 1994 to 2006.

Members of the National Guard were in Carlton on June 2, 2019, stacking sandbags to protect two homes on a peninsula that are very vulnerable to flooding. The houses are on Park Road and are surrounded by water on three sides, from Lake Ontario and Johnson Creek.

In 2017 and 2019, the National Guard spent weeks in Orleans County, filling and stacking sand bags along the lakeshore to help protect property from flooding.

Banker mobilized resources from the state to help property owners with the historic floods.

Niagara County Legislator David Godfrey praised Banker for working so well with the emergency management coordinators in the region.

“It takes a very special person to be there in the worst conditions,” Godfrey said.

Banker said the state of emergency from the lake flooding lasted months. The Covid-19 pandemic was another “long emergency” that tested the emergency management office.

Banker said the challenges with the erosion and flooding at Lake Ontario, plus the Covid-19 response, were among the most challenging because of their duration.

The flooding and the pandemic were “unchartered territory” for Orleans County, he said.

He is grateful for the system the state has in place for counties to draw on resources from other areas to help in a crisis.

Dale Banker, left, chats with Jonathan Higgins of the Medina Fire Department before a “Blue Mass” for law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics, coroners and other first responders. St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Albion hosted the Mass on Oct. 23, 2016.

Banker during his eight years as the EMO director has been vocal in his concern about a shortage of volunteer firefighters. About 20 years ago, he estimates there were 800 active volunteer firefighters. Now there are about 300 in the county.

The fire departments rely on mutual aid to bring in additional personnel to battle fires and respond to emergencies.

“It’s a great group of dedicated members,” he said. “Everyone works well together but there are less volunteers.”

He can foresee where eastern and central Orleans may need career firefighters to help with a quick response. Medina Fire Department has 19 paid firefighters who are available in western Orleans (and often for mutual aid in central Orleans).

Banker said departments increasingly depend on the mutual aid, and they don’t forget when others help them. He recalled when 60 firefighters from Orleans County went to Erie County during a massive snowstorm in November 2014, giving 3,000 hours of service.

Erie County remembered that and would donate a mobile command post to Orleans County when Erie purchased a new one.

Baker also is pleased the EMO has a new fire safety trailer to teach children and adults about fire safety. The trailer has a fog machine to simulate smoke among its many features.

The EMO also has two variable message boards that can be set up to notify motorists of road closures. The board also is used by the Board of Elections for early voting announcements.

Caleb Hughson, an Albion fifth-grader, makes it through a smoke simulator as part of Fire Prevention Week at the school on Oct. 14. A fire safety training trailer was used to teach fire prevention and also help students to know how to get out of their homes in case of a fire. Students were urged to “Stay Low and Go.” State Sen. Robert Ortt secured a $75,000 state grant for the trailer. Banker said the county has forged strong relationships with state officials and leaders from nearby counties.