Catching up with Marshall County EMA coordinator Kim Elder
(Editor’s note: September is National Preparedness Month, and Gov. Kim Reynolds also recently declared Sept. 18-23 Emergency Management Appreciation Week in Iowa.)
Marshall County Emergency Management Coordinator Kim Elder may be the only staff member in her department, but it doesn’t mean she works alone.
Elder, who has held her post for almost 20 years now, loves the job because it encompasses such a wide range of duties, and it gives her something different to do every day. She’s perhaps best known among county residents for collecting damage reports after severe weather events and assisting in the recovery process, but it’s far from her only task.
“Weather, it can be a big part of it, but like you’ve seen this year, thank goodness, we’ve had kind of calm weather, and so other things show up in the news like the siren project we’ve been working on,” she said. “A lot of my day-to-day activity is planning training exercises with responders, making sure that we’re all coordinating so when we have a bigger event, we’re able to mutual aid with each other… So anything from the call to 911 to, you know, the cleanup and debris and everything that happens in between.”
It’s her responsibility, she added, to work with the leaders of individual cities within the county to make sure they have plans in place for an emergency and know how to execute them. Elder works with businesses, individuals and media outlets to get the word out on the plans and encourage as many people as possible to be prepared for the worst.
“EMA and the purpose of emergency management is to keep people safe and minimize damage through teaching, coordinating, and assisting their county’s partners,” Marshall County 911 Communications Director Rhonda Braudis said. “Kim coordinates and does a lot of training for emergency responders as well as working with 911 for the betterment of all of Marshall County and the populations we serve.”
As a child, Elder spent time in Hardin and Marshall counties — her father was a sheriff’s deputy and a paramedic — before moving away to a few different states, meeting her husband Dan and eventually returning from southern Illinois when they started a family. She worked in dispatching for a while after high school, then worked for a hospital and became an EMT and firefighter when she returned to Iowa. Eventually, she realized that EMA could help her put all of the skills she’d gained to good use.
“I started learning all of those things, and I didn’t realize that EMA would pull me in. And it really did. What got me involved, personally, in emergency management was when the Duane Arnold Energy Center over in Palo was still operational. We were a host county, so we did training to receive people from that area if they were to evacuate,” Elder said. “As a responder, as a firefighter, EMT and working at the hospital, I was involved in that, and I was like ‘Oh, this is really neat.’ Kind of got involved with that, and then 9/11 happened. I said ‘There’s something I can do for the community.’ I’m not military, not really doing that part of it, so what can I do? And that’s when I really looked into it.”
Of course, it’s difficult to discuss emergency management in Marshall County without mentioning the two major natural disasters of the last five years — the 2018 tornado and 2020 derecho — and like so many others, Elder learned valuable lessons through the experience.
“We train, train, train (and) exercise for the big events, but until they happen, they’re all individual (situations). So you can exercise and plan and train for a tornado, but when it hits, it’s gonna be different than what you exercised, planned and trained for,” she said. “So you hope you get the majority of that when you’re exercising, planning and training, and I think we did.”
She was storm spotting west of town the day of the tornado and couldn’t believe what she saw as she entered. After initially panicking about what to do first, she remembered the plans: she knew who to call, who would be calling on her and where to go.
“Did it all go smoothly? Absolutely not, and I don’t know what disaster does. But as far as outcomes, we’ve come a long way,” Elder said.
The derecho presented an even bigger challenge as it affected essentially the entire county as opposed to the tornado, which did most of its damage in downtown Marshalltown, but once again, planning was key. Having protocols in place and letting elected officials in each community know they could reach out to her paid dividends in the long run and improved the outcomes as they began to sort through the process of a disaster declaration and filing damage assessments with the state and federal governments.
One huge benefit, she said, was the camaraderie between local responding agencies and their willingness to work together. Sheriff Joel Phillips stressed the importance of the work EMA does and the strong working relationship he and Elder have enjoyed over the years.
“EMA plans for all hazards and has an important role in preparing law enforcement for any emergency. A lot of this preparation happens with no cost grant training opportunities that include in person classroom, online training, table-top exercises, and scenario-based events that involve multiple agencies,” Phillips said. “This helps us to understand what resources are available and needed at federal, state, and local levels to have successful outcomes during difficult times.”
The sheriff added that Elder has been a great partner and is always willing to do what she can to help, whether the solution to a problem is simple or difficult.
“EMA helps law enforcement secure resources in many different aspects including grant funding, traffic control personnel, scene lighting, communications infrastructure, heavy/light duty equipment, volunteer response organization and first responder critical incident debriefing. The Sheriff’s Office is fortunate to have a close partnership with Marshall County EMA Director Kim Elder. What I have found to be unique about EMA is that if we need something, Kim either has it or knows someone who does and is willing to provide it without hesitation,” Phillips said. “I appreciate all the work Kim does for Marshall County. Her job truly is done primarily behind the scenes, unseen and unknown to the citizens of Marshall County, until an event happens, and due to her hard work, we are all prepared to respond.”
Elder hopes to retire in about seven years, and she acknowledges that the EMA field has changed rapidly during her tenure thanks to technology, changes in guidelines at the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), new elected officials coming and going and consolidation among agencies.
“The changes at the state and federal level where there’s a lot of consolidation worries me a little because we need our own voice as a county, whether that’s consolidating communications centers or 911 centers, consolidating public health, consolidating (or) possibly emergency management,” she said. “It’s hard enough for a person to coordinate a whole county like in my office. I can’t imagine doing multiple counties.”
Still, she’s proud of what she’s been able to accomplish here, whether it’s simply completing the day-to-day tasks or establishing the county’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERTs), a group of volunteers who serve as something of an auxiliary to first responders in the event of an emergency. Marshalltown Deputy Fire Chief Christopher Cross, for one, noted the importance of the CERTs when asked for comment about his agency’s relationship with Elder.
“EMAs are the link between local municipalities and state level resources. When dealing with a large and widespread incident, local resources will be utilized to capacity and additional help is needed. EMAs help to facilitate that request to the state for assistance,” Cross said. “EMAs work to educate the public on preparedness and to marshal civilian resources to help during a large incident. CERT is an example. EMAs are often the conduit for incident management training for emergency responders.”
In the meantime, Elder will keep doing her best to stress preparedness across the county and relish a job that gives her the opportunity to do something different every day.
Contact Robert Maharry at 641-753-6611 ext. 255 or