Dail leaves behind impressive legacy of service
Lenoir County Emergency Services Director Roger Dail concentrates during a Hurricane Florence briefing from the National Hurricane Center at the LCES Emergency Operations Center on Sept. 11. After an impressive career, Dail is retiring from LCES, effective Dec. 31. Photo by Bryan Hanks / Neuse News
In 1979, a young Lenoir County man saw a picture of Carl Hinson, the La Grange volunteer fireman of the year. For some reason, the man was inspired by Hinson.
The 21-year-old went into the La Grange fire station, filled out an application and became a volunteer fireman. Not long after that, he became a member of the rescue squad, also as a volunteer.
Fast-forward 39 years and that man, Roger Dail, is set to retire after a long and distinguished career as the director of Lenoir County Emergency Services. His final official day of service to the county will be Dec. 31.
“I’ve seen neighbor helping neighbor and strangers helping strangers,” Dail said of his career. “I’ve seen a lot of good in people. It lets me know that mankind is still good.”
DAIL AND THE HISTORY OF LCES
Following an outbreak of devastating tornadoes that struck the area in 1984, the county hired James Smith from the Kinston Fire Department to head up a countywide emergency management organization. In the early 1990s, the county established an assistant position to Smith for which Dail applied.
Dail was hired by the county for the assistant director position and joined Smith, who has since passed away, and Katherine Gray as the only members of the fledgling Lenoir County Emergency Management in March 1991.
“Luckily, James hired me,” Dail said. “He was a big mentor to me; he taught me a lot and I owe a lot to him.”
In late 1998, Smith became the eastern branch director of North Carolina Emergency Management and Dail was promoted to director of LCEM.
Before Hurricane Floyd’s devastation in 1999, Lenoir County hired a new county manager, John Bauer, to replace Bob Snapp, who had hired Dail.
“John hadn’t been here more than two months,” Dail recalled. “He saw me in the courthouse one day and said, ‘I want to make some changes; I want to take communications and put them under your office.’
“He asked me if I thought I could handle it. What was I going to say? So I told him we’d do the best we can.”
Dail said he didn’t think much more about it until the next morning.
“John called me on my office phone at around 8:30 and said, ‘Can you come on over here?’” Dail said. “He said he had the letter ready to make the changes. I said, ‘Today?’ And he said, ‘Today,’ so that’s when we did that.”
In July 2001, the countywide EMS was started, essentially to replace the EMS units in La Grange and Pink Hill. The name of the organization, which started with two people in 1984, was changed from Lenoir County Emergency Management to Lenoir County Emergency Services, which now has 85 employees.
ALL ABOUT THE TEAM
Dail is quick to point out the importance of not only his dedicated staff at LCES, but the hard-working members of volunteer fire departments at Hugo, Sand Hill, North Lenoir, La Grange, Sandy Bottom, Deep Run, Pink Hill and Southwood, along with Wyse Fork and Seven Springs, which are based in bordering counties but that have districts in Lenoir County.
“They’re essential to our county,” Dail said of the volunteer firemen throughout Lenoir County. “They’re true heroes.”
During Dail’s tenure as director or assistant director, he’s led the county through major hurricanes and disasters alike, including the West Pharmaceuticals explosion in January 2003 that took six lives and injured many others.
However, he said he’s not going to recall the individual events the most after he retires — he’s going to cherish the relationships he’s forged with everyone throughout Lenoir County.
“I’m going to remember the people I’ve worked with in the past and the people I work with now, for sure,” he said. “I’m going to remember the fire guys and all the different departments. I’m going to remember the folks in the health department, in DSS, the sheriff’s office, the hospital and the school system.
“I’ve had the pleasure and the excitement of working with all those different entities and I learned a lot from all of them. They’re an integral part of our community.”
LCES Assistant Director Jerri King met Dail when she joined the La Grange Fire Department in 1988. Their paths were interwoven from that point forward, from the Lenoir County Sheriff’s Office dispatch office to the Emergency Services department, where she’s served as Dail’s right-hand person since February 2010.
King said she liked him from the first time she met Dail.
“My first impression of him was that he was a good ol’ boy that would do anything for anybody,” King said with a laugh. “I can honestly say that Roger has become my best friend. I know in a working relationship you have to be employer and subordinate, but due to the length of time we’ve known each other we’ve developed the type of relationship where we can tell each other anything.”
Lenoir County Commissioner Craig Hill, who served as the chairman of the board for four years until turning over the reins to fellow commissioner Linda Rouse Sutton this week, said Dail’s leadership has been invaluable.
“There’s no telling how many lives Roger has saved over the years,” Hill said. “He’s not only helped this county, he’s a regional, state and national asset.”
Sutton said it was hard to put into words what Dail has meant to Lenoir County.
“Roger has given us a real vision for planning and training,” she said. “He’s also made sure we have young folks in leadership positions to leave us in good shape when he leaves.”
Lenoir County Sheriff Ronnie Ingram said Dail is an excellent leader. The sheriff said Dail’s sense of humor is one of his strengths.
“I’m never going to forget the camaraderie he encourages in everyone,” Ingram said. “He gets the work done, but he wants everyone to have fun doing it.”
Interim Lenoir County Manager Joey Bryan said Dail’s leadership has led to LCES training with national entities such as FDNY.
“He took our emergency services to the next level,” Bryan said. “I would put our emergency services department up against anyone’s, not just in North Carolina but in the United States.”
Dail has two children, Tara (who is now 36 and works for the Lenoir County Department of Social Services) and Ethan (now 29 and a salesperson in Raleigh).
One of Tara’s birthdays happened during Hurricane Floyd; the Emergency Operations Center staff got her a cake and a platoon of National Guard troops all signed a card for her.
“Then they all came in the EOC and sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to her,” Dail said. “That was a very special thing for her.”
Dail said he would take his son on some calls, but he specifically remembers one Saturday call when Ethan was 10 or 11.
“You know, the language can get kind of tough,” Dail said with his characteristic grin. “We had found a lot of, well, stuff in this house. We got ready to leave after about three hours; when we got in the car I said, ‘Boy, if you ever want to come with me to another one of these (calls), you better not go home and tell your mama about this!’”
Dail said he did his best to make every dance recital and ball game in which his children participated, but they understood his dedication to his job.
Preaching “family first” has been an important thing he’s taught his employees at LCES.
“We give up a lot to do this job the right way,” Lenoir County Fire Marshal Dustin Burkett said. “Roger wants us to take care of our home life first – he has taught us to take care of ourselves before we come to work and then try to take care of everyone else.”
“This is not a job, it’s a lifestyle,” Dail said. “If you and your family can’t adapt to it, you won’t make it. I’ve been lucky – my family has been able to adapt to this lifestyle.”
To a person, LCES and county officials say they’ve all learned unique lessons from Dail.
There’s one lesson that stands out to Lenoir County Emergency Planner Samuel Kornegay.
“I learned to not take no for an answer because there’s always another option,” he said. “Just because someone gives you a ‘no’ doesn’t mean there’s not another solution.”
One of the daily traditions Dail has established is walking out on the back steps of the Emergency Services office with members of his team to take a break or simply to get some fresh air. That’s where some of the best lessons he’s shared with his staff have happened.
His staff said he’s never called out or disciplined one of the LCES members in front of others – that’s happened on the back steps, one on one, or another place, but not in front of their coworkers.
“He’s taught me many little lessons here and there,” 911 Operations Manager Paige Johnson said. “He’ll take you out on the back porch or say, ‘Let’s take a ride,’ and talk to you.”
Burkett is one of the youngest members of the LCES staff. He said Dail taught him something he’ll never forget.
“When I came into this job, he told me I wasn’t trying to fill someone else’s shoes but that I was trying to make my own footsteps in the sand,” Burkett said.
Kornegay laughed when he started thinking about all the sayings and “Roger-isms” he’s heard through the years.
“I remember one time, he told someone, ‘I really don’t care if you come into my lane, but at least use a blinker’,” Kornegay said.
James Hood, the Lenoir County Deputy Director of EMS, first met Dail in the early 1990s when Dail investigated a fire that happened near Hood’s home near Dawson’s Station. Hood was 13 at the time and said Dail made a big impression on him that continues today.
“He was very business-like — he knew the answers to the questions before he even asked them,” Hood said. “He’s the same way today. He wants you to go get the answers even though he already knows them.”
Hood continued, “He’s taught me the importance of networking and meeting people. You can learn from people — their accolades and their mistakes.”
King said the main thing she learned from Dail was simple.
“One of the best lessons I’ve learned from him is to treat people the way I want to be treated and how to manage people,” King said. “I don’t necessarily need to know how to do everyone’s job, but I need to know how to manage the people who do their own distinct job.”
Dail readily admits he doesn’t know what it’s going to feel like to no longer be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“For 28 years, I’ve lived with a cell phone or a pager,” Dail said. “When the 31st gets here, I’m just going to be like, ‘Let me rest for a little bit.’ I’m just going to take a step back and rest.
“Am I going to miss it? Absolutely, but it’s time.”
He continued, “I’m excited but I’m apprehensive. I know who Roger Dail of Emergency Services is, but I don’t know who the retired Roger Dail is.”
His wife, Cindy, is from Down East; Dail envisions them eventually moving to Carteret County. He also plans to spend more time with his and Cindy’s grandchildren, along with Tara, Ethan and Cindy’s children, Chris and Robert.
“I’ve enjoyed seeing the posts on Facebook with Roger and his grandchildren,” Sutton said. “That’s a side of him a lot of folks don’t get to see. I’m so happy he’s going to get to spend more time with them.”
One thing is certain: he’s left LCES in good hands.
“He’s leaving us in a really good position,” Bryan said. “We really hate to see him go, but one of the things he’s done is left us with a solid transition of experienced professionals.”
Hill said, “If you look at his department, you can see he has a group of people who are trained and ready to go. He’s leaving the county in great shape. That speaks as highly about his leadership as anything you can say.”
King will be the interim LCES director following Dail’s retirement. She said she’ll serve at the county’s pleasure until she retires, which is set to be in approximately a year or so.
“He has left big shoes to fill,” King said. “I’ve always been in the background and I’m comfortable with that. I’ve been comfortable with being the person behind the person. I’m less comfortable with being the person in front leading the pack, so I’m a little nervous about that.”
Dail is excited about the direction of the department he helped form, grow and is about to depart.
“We’ve got Jerri — we’ve worked so long together we finish each other’s sentences,” Dail said. “Paige has worked so hard for the county and communications. And of course, we’ve got Dustin and Samuel; I’m so proud of them and how they’ve grown, I could get emotional.”
Dail’s upcoming retirement was an open secret among staffers and officials working at the Emergency Operations Center during Hurricane Florence. Since he knew he was going to retire at the end of the year, he admits he stepped back a bit to let King and his staff gain some valuable experience.
“I couldn’t ask for anything to be any more organized than they were,” Dail said. “The county is very lucky in the fact that those people are going to lead this department when I’m out of here.”
For their part, the LCES family is ready for the challenge of serving the county without their beloved leader.
“He’s been such a huge asset to Lenoir County,” Johnson said. “He’s done such a good job sharing his knowledge with myself, Samuel, Dustin, Jerri, James and everyone else. He wants to make sure we can carry on to the best of our ability.”
King said she wishes everyone could see what she and the LCES staff have witnessed over the past few decades.
“I don’t think some people in the county really realize how much he’s sacrificed for it,” King said. “He’s given up a lot of sleep, given up a lot of his time with his family and missed family events because he was always doing the job. He needs this now to have time with his grandchildren — time he didn’t have with his children.”
She continued, “He loves this county. He loves this department. He loves every single person who works for him and he loves every single citizen of Lenoir County. He is going to be missed.”