Man who saw EMA as a ministry isn’t retiring – just changing phase

Max Armstrong

Max Armstrong

Unflappable. That’s the answer. So, what’s the question? Here it is: What word best describes Max Armstrong?

As director of the Blount County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) for the last 22 years, he’s been the face, the muscle, and the epitome of emergency response in Blount County. Yet he intended to take the job for only a couple of years as a bridge to whatever came next along his career track fashioned around 20 years’ worth of military/ security/computer consulting and training background.

Instead the EMA job became – his word – a kind of “ministry,” of providing support and benefits not only to the citizens of the county, but also to the responders – fire, police, and emergency workers – who were themselves providing humanitarian and other services to citizens of the county.

Where this story is going is toward the proposition that Max Armstrong and his wife Anne are not retiring at all from ministry to others. They’re just changing phase: from the EMA world where the ministry was implicit, to the world-ofretirement to-come, where it becomes explicit in the form of a series of mission projects involving nearly any activity you can think of from construction and renovation projects to humanitarian relief in its many different forms.

But before we go there, Max has a mind full of insights about EMA that he’s not likely to bore anyone with – he’s not exactly voluble, as many of his associates know – but they’re valuable nonetheless. Frustration? Deal with it

Take for instance the subject of job frustration (and his job is one that’s got it in spades.) Max doesn’t really recognize it by that name though, because he doesn’t take time to wallow in it. But you can tell from his answers that he experienced it from time to time in the form of red tape and bureaucratic fire drills that sometimes convolute the EMA world.

So how does he deal with it? Here’s his answer. Write it down, it’s a good one.

“If you hit something frustrating, find a way around it.” ( The Marines boil it down to one word: Improvise!) “You’re never gonna have unlimited time or resources, so deal with what you have.”

What about that red tape and bureaucratic fan dancing? Max’s advice:

“You’ve got to find ways to work with people who are just trying to do their jobs, just like you are. Some of the rules and regulations can be frustrating if you let them be – grants, for example, with all of their requirements – but you have to work your way through them to get what you’re trying to get their money, in the case of grants. If you want it to become your money, you have to meet their requirements.”

Time for a detour. How did Max ever come by such a perspective? There’s no single fact in his background that provides an epiphany on that question, but there is one response that provides a glimpse. It’s half humor and half insight. It’s the best this listener could do to make a connection. Disarmingly typical wry brevity

You have to go back to a critical period in his life, the period all college graduates face as they prepare to leap into the real world following a lifetime of nothing but schooling. Max graduated from The University of Alabama with a degree in secondary education.

“Max?” you ask. Yep. Max. So what did he do next – start teaching junior high kids and coaching – something – track maybe – he looks like a runner? Nope. He joined the Army: cavalry and special forces, no less, where he spent the next eight years.

Why? His answer may shed light on – not specifically like a spotlight, mind you, but in a very general way, like an overcast day – the decision processes that governed much of the rest of his life. So why did he join the Army instead of doing what he had just finished studying several years to do?

“I decided it was safer,” he said with disarmingly typical wry brevity.

By the way, you wonder, how did he ever get to the EMA job? Just the facts: after the Army stint, he worked a while in “security” in South Florida, a gig he steadfastly refused to elaborate on (“secret agent,” a co-interviewer keeps saying aloud, to the accompaniment of no comment from Max) then returned to his boyhood home at Pine Mountain and started a computer firm with Anne, specializing in consulting and training.

That kept him busy for about a decade, during which time he volunteered with the Pine Mountain VFD, working to help get the 911 bill passed (that created the standardized address systems and centralized emergency dispatch system in place today.) In the process, Max came to Oneonta in the early 1990s and worked to help set up the computer networks involved in that system to enable fire/police/ambulance services to locate addresses and respond quickly and accurately. Eventually, he was appointed to the 911 Board. As a result of that, he was in a position to take the EMA job – until recently a dual position combining both emergency management duties for the county and 911 duties for the 911 Board – when it became available a short time later.

Hopping around a bit (but who’s counting?) let’s go back to job insights for a moment. What, in Max’s opinion, will be the biggest challenge his successor will face? Answer: “Changing from a large agency ( Jefferson County) with a sizable staff where people are specialized to a small agency where everyone has to do everything.” Not that Blount County is without agencies to help with the EMA job: volunteer fire departments, police departments, the Sheriff’s Department, the commissioners and their crews, Red Cross, Salvation Army, etc. The etcetera includes three agencies that Max manages to make sound like secret weapons and keys to Blount County’s emergency response: churches, fire departments, and – of all things – county employees in the courthouse departments.

Quick now: what have been the major emergencies Max has faced? They’re all bad. He doesn’t want to list them and make some sound worse than others, but the interviewer won’t leave until he does. Here they are: the blizzard of ‘93; the Jefferson County tornadoes of ‘98; Hurricane Ivan on Mobile’s Gulf Coast in ‘04; and the multiple tornadoes that wracked Blount County along with much of north Alabama in April 2011. Valedictory: great county, people

Max’s reflections on 22 years of (Max Armstrong’s last official day on the job is March 31. He’ll still be around and available to help out on an occasional basis – if you can catch him at home.) emergency work come across as a valedictory: “This is a great county. The people of this county made my job so much easier, because they believe in taking care of themselves and their neighbors. We rarely have to call for outside help in Blount County. In the outbreak of tornadoes of 2011, counties around us were calling for outside help, for state help, and some of them were admittedly hit terribly hard. In Blount County, we were taking care of our own and sending help to surrounding counties.”

What’s in Max’s and Anne’s future? You’ve already heard it. Ministry. Mission trips. Maybe some travel for travel’s sake – like an upcoming trip to Alaska. But even so, there may be a mission connection. Where do they all come from? Can’t say about all, but here are a couple of examples. Max and Anne are on the list for mission trips sponsored by a couple of standing organizations who call on them for mission assistance – SIFAT for instance (Servants In Faith And Technology); NOMADs, for another (Nomads On Mission And Divine Service).

Why do they do it?

“Because we want to do what we feel is God’s will for us. He’s blessed us with good jobs over the years, and that enables us to do things for others. So we’ll continue to do God’s work, following wherever he leads.”

Last observation: Anne’s the imponderable. “I couldn’t have lasted as long on this job as I have without her,” Max says. “She’s put up with all kinds of hours, and she’s pitched in and spent many nights down here herself, answering phones, helping with whatever needed to be done.”

Sounds like that’s on the level. Makes you wonder who’s really driving the ministry train. Maybe Max? Maybe Anne? Maybe both? Fare thee well, Max and Anne Armstrong.