Jonathan Marr, deputy director for Sedgwick County Emergency Management, won this year’s Excellence in Public Service Award for Sedgwick County. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)
Jonathan Marr, deputy director for Sedgwick County Emergency Management, won this year’s Excellence in Public Service Award for Sedgwick County. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

From Seattle to Baghdad to the Marshall Islands, Jonathan Marr has worked as a firefighter all over the globe.  

But Marr, deputy director for Sedgwick County Emergency Management, moved to Wichita in 2019. And he’s made his mark since doing so. 

After becoming deputy director in 2020, Marr conducted in-depth research into the county’s aging tornado siren system. He volunteers as a firefighter in Derby. And his community service includes leading Wichita’s only Sea Scout ship and acting as editor in chief of a site dedicated to news and information for firefighters.  

Marr received this year’s Excellence in Public Service Award from Sedgwick County, an honor granted to public employees for strong work ethic, exceptional performance and commitment to community. The Wichita Beacon caught up with Marr to learn about the emergency management department and his extensive community service. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Before I started covering local government, I didn’t know what emergency management was. I kept getting it mixed up with EMS (emergency medical services). What do you do? What does your job look like?

That is actually a very common mistake that people make. They often mistake us for EMS. 

But emergency management is — we were born out of the civil defense era. So, if you’re familiar with the civil defense agency from the 1950s and all the duck-and-cover stuff. That civil defense gravitated into civil preparedness, which turned into disaster management, which then was renamed emergency management. So we used to be disaster management. That is our primary role. Preparing our community for the big events. We are collaborators, we are planners, we are communicators and we are organizers. So what we do is we work actively with all of our police chiefs, all of our fire chiefs, all of our public works departments, all of our hospitals. Basically, every stakeholder we have in emergency response. And we make sure that we’re developing plans that provide cohesion when we respond to that. 

We have public education programs for preparedness, like our community emergency response team basic training program, which will be launching sometime this fall.

And a lot of what we do is recovery. So we’ve just had this tornado that moved through. While the emergency is over, the recovery is not over. These people still don’t have homes, they still don’t have vehicles. They still don’t have clothes and food and all this other stuff. Even after the fire trucks and ambulances leave, emergency management is here to help coordinate the resources that these folks need to sustain their lives. 

What has your job looked like in the wake of that tornado? Have you been getting enough sleep?

The short answer is no. It’s been dizzying. We had a lot going on before the tornado — a lot of balls that were up in the air. A lot of the work we were trying to do to prepare for events like this. It definitely threw a wrench into our day-to-day lives, and we have to pivot into this emergency response mode or emergency recovery mode, which takes a lot of energy, a lot of effort and a lot of time.  

It’s not technically our role to be on site. Our piece of this is coordination of resources and collaboration of resources. We try to make sure that the people that need the things are getting the things from the people that can give the things. But because we had 21 parcels affected, we became intimately familiar with every resident and every homeowner, what their needs were.

Your biography says you worked on research into Sedgwick County’s outdoor siren system and how to save costs. What does that mean for the average person who cares about tornado sirens? What’s the next step? 

Emergency management has had incredible budget struggles in the last five to 10 years. A lot of it has been around our outdoor warning system. We’re just trying to keep the sirens working, essentially. And it’s aging. … We have sirens in our system that are 70 years old. This is mechanical equipment that is still working from 1952. They are museum pieces. We have museums that have reached out to us and they have asked if they can get ahold of them when we’re done. We have people that travel here from out-of-state to videotape and witness our Monday noon tests, because it’s like seeing a piece of history sound off every Monday at noon. 

One of the first things I was tasked with when I got here was to figure out why we’re breaking our budget year after year trying to keep these things working. Really, it’s a combination of factors, but it’s the age of the system plus some upgrades that we did in 2012. We tried to put motherboards on top of 1950s equipment and make them talk to each other. And it’s costing a lot of money to maintain. 

We found savings by moving our position from reactive maintenance to preventive maintenance.

We developed a new capital improvement project to replace the system. We’ve never had a master plan system for Sedgwick County.

Your biography also said that you’ve done research on cancer that firefighters face, which triggered universities to study the issue. Can you tell me more about that?

So I have a website, Honestly, that website was a post-college (project). After I graduated, I had this chunk of time I didn’t even know what to do with. So I started a blog, and that blog somehow became pretty popular. I ended up with like 20-30 writers, writing and contributing articles. I ended up with advertisers. 

I was approached by a woman in Massachusetts, Diane Cotter. She said to me, “Hey, my husband has prostate cancer, and I think he got it from the fire gear, and here’s why.” The topic was surrounding chemicals that are used to manufacture fire gear. And these chemicals are carcinogenic chemicals. 

So that was the explanation she gave me. I said, “You know, if this turns out to be true, this is going to be one of the biggest fire service scandals in this century.” 

Right around the times those chemicals came online is when the cancer rate started rising. So they’re easy dots to connect, but not so much easy dots to prove. So we published an initial article. It was called “The REAL Cancer in Your Gear.” … It got like 275,000 views within the first week and a half, two weeks. 

That led to a conversation with experimental nuclear physicist Graham Peaslee at the University of Notre Dame. He studies PFAS chemicals at Notre Dame. He offered to test some swatches of fire gear for us to let us know how much PFAS was in there. Those test results came back. They were actually alarming. He was shocked. It was 14,000 times what was allowed in drinking water, is what he found in the gear. He shared those results with all of his colleagues and across the nation. Harvard ended up doing a study. 

It has just snowballed into this group of studies around firefighter turnout gear. The whole goal really was to change the industry. And it already started changing. About a year or two ago, fire gear manufacturers started announcing they were going to gravitate away from these chemicals and the fire gear. 

Some people may not know how integral government functions are to our lives. Why are emergency management services important and what should more people know about them?

We have amazing public services in Sedgwick County. Fire departments, police departments, public works, hospital systems, forensic science centers, nonprofits, Salvation Army, Red Cross. When a disaster occurs, each one of those agencies has a role and a piece to play within that disaster. But unless we’re all coordinating our efforts, it’s going to be a haphazard response to that large-scale incident. So emergency management is here to coordinate all of those resources so that we can have a more effective response to where the problem is. 

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Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership...