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Retirement next step for emergency director

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Next week, county residents will have a less familiar name advising them about storms and other emergencies.

Forrest “Tug” Sutton will retire at the end of the year as emergency management director. For more than a dozen years, he has headed the emergency management agency. He will be replaced by Stephanie Sichting, who has worked as an administrative assistant at the agency for more than a decade.

The director is in charge of leading the county’s emergency management efforts in a disaster, such as a tornado or earthquake, and organizes training for emergency workers.

In an interview shortly after he announced his plan to retire, Sutton, 67, said he won’t miss the sleepless nights when a storm hits but knows he’ll still feel like he should be next to the firefighters and police officers the next time disaster strikes.

During his time on the job, Sutton has helped coordinate the response to multiple disasters, including six serious enough for a presidential disaster declaration in Johnson County. He said he remembers each one, but none was as big as the June 2008 flood. When he received word of the disaster, he was starting a vacation but turned around and went straight to work.

He worked with police and fire departments across the county, along with state offices and the Indiana National Guard, to ensure everyone received the help they needed. And in the days after, he toured dozens of damaged homes, businesses and government properties and helped organize the recovery.

The job requires the director to be on call at all times, ready to report to the county’s emergency operations center when disaster strikes.

After 40 years in security at Eli Lilly, 25 years as a volunteer firefighter, eight years as coroner and now 12 years in his current job, Sutton said he’s ready to retire. “I’m just ready to slow down a little bit,” he said.

Sutton started work as the county’s emergency management director in October 1999 and was given the immediate task of preparing a response plan for the possibility that Y2K, or when the year turned to 2000, could wreak havoc on the nation. The concern was with electronics and computers and whether they would be able to transition to a new century.

On New Year’s Eve, he camped out in his office beginning at 6 p.m., waiting for reports of power generators or stoplights on the fritz. But by 4 a.m., state officials deemed Y2K was a bust, and he went home.

Sutton said the biggest change he has seen since taking his job was the effect of Sept. 11 and concerns about terrorism. He always at least mentions terrorism preparedness in speeches and trainings, and preparing for terrorism is a main focus of grant applications and emergency worker training, he said.

But the flood was the single biggest event he had to deal with, and his office continues to deal with issues related to long-term recovery. State officials told Sutton the county’s response was faster and better coordinated than some other counties, and Sutton was recognized by the White River Township Fire Department for his work after the flood.

Sutton said helping the public will be the part of his job he will miss the most.

“I won’t miss the stress,” he said, “but I will miss the people.”

And we’ll miss having Tug in the control center when an emergency arises.

We thank him for his years of service to Johnson County and wish him well in his retirement. Perhaps now he can take the vacation that was interrupted by the flood.

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