How to make radios work with Alan Purdue (S3E16)

From volunteer firefighter to head of emergency services and now a county commissioner, listen to how Alan Purdue of Guilford County, NC has improved basic communication that helps saves lives both for his county and the nation.

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Alan Purdue: A police officer, a firefighter, a paramedic shouldn’t walk into a building and lose the most critical piece of equipment they have in their personal protective equipment profile. That’s communications, their radio. Exactly. Good government, to me, is about being efficient, effective and responsive to the needs of the people you’re there to serve, trying to make life better than it was when you got there.

I had a manager one time, he said. I judge how well my people are doing by how often my phone rings and, you know, that kind of stuff on me as a as a young leader. And it’s that same thing, having conversation. No government is perfect. I’ll be the first to say that there’s always going to be issues.

But when you have an issue, it’s about fixing it and not just letting it continued to fester and be a problem. So oftentimes government continues to kick the can down the road and in public safety, with a public safety background, you’re making life and death decisions, you know, and a few seconds.

David Martin: Welcome to the Good Government Show. I’m Dave Martin. And I’m about to learn a lot about emergency services and technology. I’m about to have a conversation with Alan Perdue, a county commissioner in Guilford County, North Carolina. Alan got elected to an office after a long career in public safety, starting as a volunteer firefighter at the age of 16.

Then, a long career in emergency management, rising to be the director of the county’s Department of Emergency Services. His retirement. And I’m going to throw air quotes around that word. Well, it lasted about a year because one year after stepping down, he was elected county commissioner. Public safety continues to be his area of focus. As you’ll hear, he serves as executive director of the Safer Buildings Coalition.

He is currently a member of NATO’s Telecommunications and Technology Policy Steering Committee and was recently a featured speaker at our breakout session on public safety. As you will hear, he continues to work on eliminating dead zones in buildings and improving radio communications. He’s also chair of the county’s mental health subcommittee. A lot of work for a retired guy.

You’ll hear this conversation coming up right after the break.

The good government show is sponsored by NACO. That’s the National Association of Counties. County Government is actually the oldest form of government in the United States, and it touches more people directly. Roads, highways, hospitals, schools, recycling law enforcement, water and sewers in most of the country, those services are maintained by the county that’s county government. Naco is a nationwide organization that represents all 3069 counties across the USA.

NACO helps county government work better together to things like sharing best practices. Because when county government works well, well, that’s just good government.

Welcome to the Good Government show. And we are having a conversation with Alan Perdue. I just said your name, but if you could introduce yourself where you’re from, what your title is, and what you do.

Alan Purdue: Sure. I’m Alan Blue. I’m a county commissioner in Guilford County, North Carolina, and also serve as executive director of a not for profit called the Safer Buildings Coalition.

David Martin: And what’s the organization you’re on here at the National Association of Counties?

Alan Purdue: I serve on the telecommuting Actions and Technology Steering Committee.

David Martin: So first, let’s just talk a little bit about Guilford County, North Carolina. Where is it? Where are you?

Alan Purdue: We’re in the Piedmont Triad area of North Carolina, which is central North Carolina, where a county of just over 650 square miles of the population of about 540,000.

David Martin: And what’s is high point in Guilford County, Greensboro, Greensborough.

Alan Purdue: Both are within Guilford County.

David Martin: And full disclosure, my daughter went to High Point University, and so I have been to Guilford County.

Alan Purdue: Yeah, exactly. Very nice. Very nice university.

David Martin: Yes. Yes. She and she was she was there for four years and graduated. Now she’s working. So we love High Point University. So one of the things that we found out is that you are involved in improving communications as in buildings, both new buildings and especially older buildings. Tell me why this is a problem and, you know, set up for us.

You know what what the challenge here.

Alan Purdue: Is certainly in many buildings, the construction materials that are used inside buildings, concrete, steel, blowing glass windows block are a radio frequency signal from entering into the building. From a public safety perspective, the police, fire and EMS utilize radios daily. And once they enter into a building that radio signals often block, rendering their radios useless. The same concept happens in the same world where people go inside a building and have no cellular coverage because that signal is being blocked.

David Martin: Now, some people would argue that why is this a big deal? You know, long before we had cell phones, we were able to get work done. Why is it important and why is this a particular challenge?

Alan Purdue: Well, today we’re a connected world. If you’re not connected, you’re less safe. Think about needing to call 911 over 80% of calls to now one one come from a mobile device. Now, when’s the last time you saw a pay phone on the wall? Cable or even a desk phone on some people’s desk? Yeah. So the ability to call 911 and be located is critical.

The ability You mentioned your daughter going to college. I had the same experience when my daughter was going to college and we’re at the family orientation day. And I asked this question. I said, with my background in public safety, I asked this question. I said, You guys have a mass notification plan so that if something happens, my child is going to get a message, either a text or email, about what to do to shelter in place, whether it’s an active shooter event or a weather event.

And they said, yes, we have this plan. They can sign up and be notified and ask a follow up question. I’ll said, What have you done to ensure you have coverage in every area, my child or anyone.

David Martin: To tell you that this is going.

Alan Purdue: To be and so that they can receive that message and you could have heard a pin drop. So we have to think about can people get messages about what to do in an emergency? And then the third piece is can first responders communicate? I’m a police officer, a firefighter, a paramedic shouldn’t walk into a building and lose the most critical piece of equipment they have in their personal protective equipment profile.

That’s communication. Their radio, their radio. Exactly.

David Martin: Now, let’s establish your bona fides in this field. I think you told me before we started recording 34 years in in emergency services. Tell me about your background there.

Alan Purdue: Yeah, I started out as a volunteer firefighter at 16 years of age and then went to State. Yeah, I went to work when I was 18.

David Martin: Couldn’t play for the baseball team. You know the firefighter?

Alan Purdue: Yeah, that was in my blood work. So, you know, 34 years, last ten years serving as emergency services director and chief of the department. And we provided fire, EMS, Emergency Management services. So you’re a.

David Martin: Firefighter as well as a.

Alan Purdue: Firefighter as well. So my background has always been public safety. So this issue I’ve experienced firsthand where you can’t communicate either from in the building or if you’re an answering commander outside trying to talk to somebody and it’s a very critical issue for our first responders.

David Martin: What’s scary about it.

Alan Purdue: The scary part is, is if somebody needs help and they the key that radio and need additional resources or need help, they’re not going to get it. And this also affects the public safety because as emergency responders respond to an incident, you know, they’re trying to get all the information they can and make the best decision about how to mitigate that particular situation.

So when they can’t communicate, it just creates chaos. And if you look at many after action reports, it’ll talk about inadequate communications being a factor in the outcome and sometimes the unsuccessful outcome of an incident.

David Martin: Have you been in situations or were you in situations yourself where you just couldn’t communicate and it was your it was a dangerous situation?

Alan Purdue: Yeah. And what happens is, you know, public safety is a very resilient group. They’re going to find a way to make something happen. Firefighters do. Yeah, that’s right. And so but we shouldn’t be putting our people in that situation. You know, when you invest in a radio system, which is millions of dollars, you invest in portable radios that range from 5000 to 70 $500, give or take, depending on the bells and whistles.

One of the things you expect that radio system to do is what works.

David Martin: Yeah, where we’re.

Alan Purdue: Our first responders go to work, and that’s the built environment of the communities they serve.

David Martin: And so what do you bring to the the NACO subcommittee that you had that you referred two things.

Alan Purdue: You know, I wanted I did a presentation today and I wanted to highlight number one is awareness of this issue. And one of the things is when you have regulations like these that are within national fire codes that are adopted on a local level, oftentimes you’ll get some pushback from building owners and developers to say, well, that just drives up cost.

I don’t want to do this. So we’ve had policy makers exempt these requirements on a local level. And what that does is put your responders at risk. So I want to bring awareness to why this is important. The second thing is we did a project in Guilford County, and knowing how critical this is, knowing that our schools, where our youth go every day had an issue.

I was able to work with my peers on the commission and get, you know, $5 million allocated to start solving this problem in some of our schools throughout our county.

David Martin: What made you decide to transition from firefighter emergency response to county commissioner.

Alan Purdue: To continue to be able to help? There were some things I wanted to get done and approved as as emergency services director that didn’t get done. And I thought, well, let me get on the other side of the dialog and.

David Martin: Fix this.

Alan Purdue: Problem and see if I can get some funding to do some of these things that were vital and provide a voice for our emergency responders.

David Martin: Have you been able to do that? Have you been.

Alan Purdue: Able to be able to do that? Been able to make some changes? Our building, we tried to get built for about 20 years, got built and they’re using it now.

David Martin: And what are your what are your firefighter buddies say to you when they see you?

Alan Purdue: Oh, well, they’re glad. It’s glad it’s done. You know, we’ve been able to work on salary increases and other things to help, you know, public safety, because at the end of the day, you know, those first responders are there for all the citizens to meet that need. And we need to make sure they have the resources that they need to do the job day in and day out.

David Martin: And they’re probably glad to have one of their own in charge.

Alan Purdue: I certainly hope so.

David Martin: Are they supportive or whether they’re good? Good.

Alan Purdue: I’m in my third term, so. All right.

David Martin: Okay. All right. And I know in New York, anyway, firefighters, they all get together. They’ve been in each other’s houses, backyard barbecues. Are you still part of that crowd?

Alan Purdue: Yeah. And you know, my role now with the coalition, I get to interact with a lot of the folks. I was very active on a state and national level during my career, serving on the International Association Parties, Board of Directors and and code councils and codes and Standards councils. I get to see a lot of folks who still have a lot of conversations and you know that brotherhood and sisterhood is still there.

David Martin: And and I would imagine at some level it sort of keeps you humble.

Alan Purdue: Yeah, Yeah, it does.

David Martin: And firefighters are not going to let you get too big for your for advance there.

Alan Purdue: Well, you know, I always. Everything we do, whether as a chief or as a commissioner, should start out with this question, what’s best for those we’re here to serve. It’s not about us. It’s about the people we serve. So we have to make decisions based on that founding principle, in my opinion.

David Martin: All right. Well, since you brought it back to government, I’m going to bring it back to you now. We have a questionnaire here. So we’re going to we’re going to jump into this and we’re going to find out your true feelings about government. All right. So my first question is to find good government.

Alan Purdue: Good government to me is about being efficient, effective and responsive to the needs of the people you’re there to serve, trying to make life better than it was when you got there.

David Martin: That’s important.

Alan Purdue: That’s simple.

David Martin: How do you know if you’re providing good government? What do you what do you use for yourself so you know that you’re doing the right thing?

Alan Purdue: Part of what I look at is how, number one, intrusive requirements are. And number two, how simple is it for people to be able to do what they need to do? I believe in Six Sigma. Looking at process, looking at data. To me, data drives decisions, so we need to have data to make decisions about what needs to be done, and we need to make sure we don’t have useless steps or roadblocks or impediments in the way of people getting what they need.

You know, it’s about delivering service and not being a roadblock to what people need.

David Martin: And how do you want the people to hold you accountable to know that those services are being delivered?

Alan Purdue: Yeah, it’s it’s really pick up the phone and let us know. You know, I had a manager one time who said, you know, we just.

David Martin: Said that 80% calls from cell phones. Do they text if.

Alan Purdue: They share a link? Yeah, I wanted to invite them all my numbers out there, but, you know, I had a manager one time. He said, I judge how well my people are doing by how often my phone rings. And, you know, that kind of stuff on me is as young leader. And it’s that same thing having conversations. No government is perfect.

I’ll be the first to say that there’s always going to be issues, but when you have an issue, it’s about fixing it and not just letting it continue to fester and be a problem.

David Martin: Now, in your role as head of emergency services, obviously you were very working very closely with government leaders. Did you have someone when you came on the board to sort of mentor you?

Alan Purdue: Yes and no. You know, as you know, department head in our county, I had sat through hundreds of board meetings and saw how people operated. And I, you know, picked a lot of tips up on that. Talk to a lot of folks to try to figure out and, you know, through the education process as well, you know, is really about making decisions.

So oftentimes government continues to kick the can down the road. And in public safety, with a public safety background, you’re making life and death decisions, you know, and a few seconds and we don’t.

David Martin: Do government stuff is easy.

Alan Purdue: Yeah, this government stuff is easy. I can remember being in the back room one time and they’re talking about creating a committee. I said, For what? Make a decision. Move on. You know, this isn’t rocket science. You know, I made that statement. I’ll say it took less time to decide somebody’s going to live or die, you know, and not to dense.

It’s that simple. But we really just needed to act, you know, to get the job done.

David Martin: So if people feel like they’re not getting the representative government they want or that their leaders aren’t doing what they want them to do, what should they do?

Alan Purdue: Get involved? You know.

David Martin: What’s the best way?

Alan Purdue: Sometimes it’s about running for office. You know, it’s about putting your name in the hat. It’s about getting on a committee, getting on a group.

David Martin: But that’s hard, though. I mean, you know, it’s hard. You know, a is a wife, kids school, a job, you know. Oh, now you want to want me to run for office? Why can’t you do it? That’s why I like to join.

Alan Purdue: Yeah, well, in part, I just, you.

David Martin: Know, I’m not arguing with you, but, I mean, there’s. There’s that mindset. How do you. How do you get past that?

Alan Purdue: Well, part of it is one, you know, approach with decorum and respect. One of the things I think we’ve lost in government sometimes is respect for each other. The ability to have conversations about differing opinions and figure out where’s the middle ground. You know, it’s not going to always be the way I want it or the way you want it.

But can we find a medium road that we can go down and and have a conversation without being willing to agree to disagree, without being disagreeable to those conversations and sometimes just having the difficult conversations. And I always use a Stephen Covey concept of seek first to understand before being understood. It’s about listening and oftentimes deciduous. Just want you to listen to what your issue is.

You may not have an answer, but you need to at least listen and see what their point of view is before you start making a comeback or something along those lines.

David Martin: So nine years as a county commissioner, I think you said 32.

Alan Purdue: Years, 34 years.

David Martin: 34 years in public safety and emergency response. What would you like people to know about government, what you know, who aren’t insiders? What would you like those not insiders to know about how government works and how it operates?

Alan Purdue: Well, that’s a that’s a $64,000 question. You know, understanding there are limitations. You can’t be all things to all people. And I think the biggest thing people don’t realize is, is you have to manage limited resources, understanding that, you know, there’s only a certain amount of money and you can’t find everything and you have to prioritize. And oftentimes that prioritization is based on the particular citizens that you serve.

It’s different for different things. There’s no one size fits all because every community has different issues, different problems going on and things like that. So, you know, we learned this in in the fire service as an example. Fire prevention message used to be the same no matter where you win. We now call it community risk reduction, because the risk in each community somewhat different.

So we need to focus on that specific risk.

David Martin: Here’s an easy question. Who’s your political hero?

Alan Purdue: Ronald Reagan.

David Martin: Really? You know why.

Alan Purdue: His his style, his demeanor, his. He was a very effective communicator. And he’s kind of right saying, we’re sitting right here where he was, you know, shot.

David Martin: Yes, we’re at the wall. We’re at the Washington.

Alan Purdue: The Washington Hilton. Yes. And. But just just a great communicator and very professional demeanor.

David Martin: Now, you’re from the.

Alan Purdue: Triad, Piedmont Triad.

David Martin: Triad. You’re here for the Triad area of North Carolina. What’s your favorite food? What’s your favorite dish back home?

Alan Purdue: Barbecue.

David Martin: All your best. What do you have it? What do you order?

Alan Purdue: I get to chop barbecue. It’s. It’s good. And North Carolina’s known for barbecue. You got Eastern, you got Western. You got Piedmont. Right?

David Martin: Which. What are you. Which. What do you.

Alan Purdue: Like most of all of that? All right.

David Martin: What’s your where where where’s your go to place in your area?

Alan Purdue: We’ve got a little place called Country Barbeque and Snyder views about once a week.

David Martin: Good man. Good. Bad, though. What do you what you’re doing with your fire up the smoker? What are you cooking?

Alan Purdue: I cook steak a lot. You do? Yeah. Take.

David Martin: Take home to.

Alan Purdue: Steak at home? Yeah.

David Martin: You said you or your started as a volunteer firefighter at 16 was running for office. Getting into politics, something you always had the back of your mind?

Alan Purdue: Not really. But, you know, my career had me involved. As I said, I worked on a state and national level a lot. I was up here on Capitol Hill advocating for resources for for public safety. And, you know, just being in that process, thinking, you know, well, if I’m will make a difference, I got to get engaged and get involved.

So that was kind of a pivotal point that night. I’ve got folks that have asked me to stay involved and I kind of had that burning desire. So, you know, I prayed about it.

David Martin: And where are you going to retire? Are you going to retire after 34 years?

Alan Purdue: Yeah. Yeah, I kind of I’ve said my but I go to.

David Martin: Work at the Bait Shop like that.

Alan Purdue: But, you know, my philosophy is, is that you have to have a purpose. That’s what keeps us going. And I thought, here’s an opportunity to continue to serve if the people want me to.

David Martin: So in your nine years, tell me something that you’ve done that you’re proud of, that is a real good government project.

Alan Purdue: Yeah. You know, I mentioned what we’re doing with the schools. Another project that was very near and dear to me was the building of a brand new behavioral health center. We built a new adult and adolescent center, two different centers to serve. Our public behavioral health has become a major issue, both for the public and our first responders.

And we needed resources. We had a situation where people didn’t know where to go to get the right service, the right answer, and we said, we’re going to build a place that has an open door. There is no wrong answer. You’re going to get to the service you need.

David Martin: And first responders are exceptionally harder to have them reach out to get the services right.

Alan Purdue: Exactly.

David Martin: And what have you done? How have you addressed that issue?

Alan Purdue: Yeah, it’s about having peer support, you know, critical incident, stress debriefing processes and things like that, and just bringing more awareness that it’s okay to talk to somebody. It’s okay to say this situation impacted me. And, you know, I think every first responder has one of those incidents in their career that is that you lose sleep over at night.

And we want to make sure that people have the right resources to deal with that and address it.

David Martin: Have you seen a change in mindset over your career?

Alan Purdue: I think so. You know, there’s more articles about it. There are people that have programs, you know, used to it was it was like the hidden taboo. You don’t talk about this, but but now it’s not, you know, that you know, if somebody has a heart condition, you don’t you go get help and you talk about it and all that stuff, you know, behavioral health is very similar.

Concept is we need to be able to have those conversations and have the resources that are there to meet people’s needs.

David Martin: Well, that is important work, for sure. For sure. This is a great conversation with Alan Perdue. Purdue, thank you for stopping by. Great to meet you. And, hey, keep up the good work.

Alan Purdue: Thank you. Appreciate it.

David Martin: Thank you.

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I liked his answer a lot. Efficient, effective and responsive to the people you’re elected to serve. That’s how Guilford County, North Carolina Commissioner Alan Perdue defines good government. That’s not a bad three word definition. And, well, frankly, I’d vote for a county commissioner that gets to his favorite barbecue place at least once a week. So that was a good conversation on public safety.

Join us again on the Good Government show when we have another conversation with someone else in public service who will explain how they see government working for all of us. I’m Dave Martin. Join me on the next episode of The Good Government Show. Thanks for listening. The Good Government show and a conversation with is produced by Valley Park Productions.

Jim Ludlow, David Martin and David Snyder are the executive producers, are editor and producer is Jason Stershic. This is the Good government show. Thanks for listening.

**This transcription was created using digital tools and has not been edited by a live person. We apologize for any discrepancies or errors.