“I blurted out: 'I don’t have a job and I need one!'”
That's how Paul Spengler says he ended up as the man in charge of making sure Helena was safe from all sorts of natural and human-caused disasters.
Paul Spengler has been working as Lewis and Clark County’s disaster and emergency services coordinator since December 1979. When he retires at the end of 2017, he will have worked for the county for 38 years.
Spengler was born in Chicago but ended up in Great Falls as an Air Force man. He met his wife there, and after time spent in the Philippines on tour, he came back to marry her and move to Helena.
“I don’t constantly think about disasters,” Spengler said of the job with a laugh. “It has increased my situational awareness and knowledge about what the public can do to prepare against and mitigate (natural disasters).”
Spengler loves the position.
“It’s a fascinating job,” Spengler said in the county disaster headquarters, a basement room underneath the Law Enforcement Center. “Never boring.”
The "never boring" part is an understatement. Spengler has seen Helena through volcanic ash, calamitous floods, forest fires and a train explosion.
He responded to the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. Though the mountain is nearly 700 miles away, the ash from the eruption fell on Helena and made him realize that the community had no response protocol for volcanoes.
“Folks had to scramble,” Spengler said about the eruption.
Deputy disaster and emergency services coordinator Brett Lloyd said that's the reason Spengler kept pushing for a volcanic ash section in the community's disaster plan.
“That gave you a time reference for how long he’s been doing it,” Lloyd said.
“He’s responding to incidents, very calm, very collected, never stressed,” Lloyd said about Spengler.
Early on Feb. 2, 1989, a train started slowly rolling down MacDonald Pass. At 4:58 a.m. it collided with a parked train just underneath Carroll College, and the resulting explosion was so large that it was measured by a seismograph in Butte.
“It was the biggest disaster since the 1935 earthquake,” Spengler said.
He remembered that all the windows in Carroll College’s women’s dormitory were blown out in the explosion. Luckily, students had put blankets in front of their windows because it had been minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit the past week, so no one was hurt.
Chalk up another type of incident to add to the community's disaster plan.
Spengler works with those in the weather community as well. Megan Syner is the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Great Falls. She’s worked with Spengler the past decade on disaster preparation and relief.
“It’s been such an honor to work with Paul,” Syner said. “We wouldn’t be able to complete our mission of protecting lives and property without his support.”
“He has such a passion to serve the community,” Syner said.
Karen Semple was a deputy disaster and emergency services coordinator with Spengler for 12 years. She remembers Spengler as someone worthy of following. “He inspires you to be your best self,” Semple said.
And he's not a fan of doughnuts or sweet rolls, Lloyd added.
“Whenever meetings were at his house, we had to bring that ourselves,” Lloyd said with a chuckle. “He always wanted people to bring healthy snacks.”