On July 1, J.R. Powell, the former Director of the Martinsville-Henry County 911 Center became the Deputy County Administrator of Henry County. He stepped into the role vacated by former Deputy Dale Wagoner, who was named County Administrator following the retirement of Tim Hall.
Powell comes to his new role after 27-years of service to Henry County at the 911 Center. He also has a proven record of service not only to his community, but to his nation.
The Martinsville High School graduate joined the United States Marine Corps after graduating in 1989.
He recalled working a night-shift summer job at Pannill Knitting Co. between his junior and senior year of high school. Having just finished a shift, he was fast asleep at home when the doorbell rang.
“There was this man standing there in United States Marine Corps dress blues. I thought, ‘what does he want?’” He ended up enlisting.
The decision was not entirely an unexpected one. Powell said his family had a long history of military service. He said his grandfather was so dedicated, he served in WWI and tried to re-enlist when WWII broke out. He was turned down due to his advanced age.
“Serving in the military is just something in our DNA that we’ve always done,” Powell said.
He graduated high school and, two weeks later, was on a train to Parris Island, SC. “I arrived there and thought my life was over,” he said. Each recruit was required to write a letter home, telling their loved ones they had arrived safely and would not be able to communicate for a few weeks. “I snuck a few lines in there to tell my mom, ‘do whatever you have to do, but get me out of here,’’ he laughed.
Looking back now, though, Powell said his time in the Marine Corps “was the best thing that could have happened to me at that point in my life.” His time in service was “challenging, it was tough mentally, physically, and emotionally,” however, “I really, truly enjoyed my six years there.”
Powell served as a communications specialist which, he said, “was a fancy word meaning I was a grunt with a radio on my back.”
As much as he enjoyed his service, when his 6-year contract was up, he opted to leave. While still serving, Powell had married his high school sweetheart, Christa, and they had two children. He decided it was time to go home to his family.
He left the military as a Sergeant, having received three Navy Achievement Medals, and upon returning home to the Martinsville-Henry County area, Powell’s mother shared an advertisement in the local newspaper for a 911 dispatcher. He applied.
He began working for the center in 1995 as a Telecommunicator. In 1998, he was promoted to Assistant Shift Supervisor, then became Operations Supervisor in 1999 before being named Director in 2012.
“We’re very blessed to have an awesome team of 911 dispatchers in there,” Powell said. “Not a lot of people understand truly what they do in there.”
Wagoner credited Powell for his innovative thinking during his time as Director, one of the qualities that made him stand out as an applicant for the deputy role.
“Over the years, our 911 center has become known for being on the cutting edge of technology and we’ve developed a lot of that early on,” Powell said, primarily through people “thinking outside the box and wanting to try something new.”
For example, “we built a geo-diverse and redundant 911 center,” essentially a second center that could carry out all the same functions as the one housed in the Henry County Administration Building.
“What if something happens to this building,” he asked. “All of our 911 resources are in this building. A lot of technology, a lot of work was put in, what would we do” in the event of a tornado, fire, or other emergency?
For most localities, he said, the answer would be to transfer calls to a neighboring jurisdiction.
“That never made sense to me,” Powell said. What could a 911 dispatcher from, for example, Franklin County, do with a Martinsville or Henry County 911 call?
“Today, we have a fully-operational backup 911 center (located on Dupont Road) that has everything that you see in the 911 center here,” Powell said.
The space proved it was worth the time, effort, and red tape to build once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he said. Some dispatchers were able to work in the second space, allowing the center to remain operational and still provide space for social distancing. He said he received calls from other centers around the country, with people eager to learn more about the processes involved in constructing the backup center.
“Now in Virginia, there are centers all over the place developing geo-diverse and redundant 911 centers,” he said.
Now, having spent 27 years at the 911 center, Powell is stepping into his new role, a role he was not ever confident he would get, even after what he felt was a successful interview.
“I prayed about it,” he said, “and I said, if it’s meant for me to be there, it will happen. If not, then I’m completely happy at the 911 center. That’s my family there.”
Apparently, it was, in fact, meant to be.
“I’m an all-in type of person,” Powell said. “Whatever my role is, throughout my whole life, in the Marine Corps to the 911 Center and now as Deputy County Administrator, I’m all in. Whatever I have to do to get the job done. It’s in my family’s DNA, serving others, serving our country, serving our community, and serving our citizens. It’s what I’ve always done. I look forward to serving in this role.”
Powell admitted that the new job has come with a steep learning curve.
“I was locked into my 911 world for 27 years. I could tell you every nut and bolt. If they called me at 2 a.m. and something was not working, I could tell you over the phone how to fix it.” It will take some time to achieve that level of familiarity with the nuts and bolts of the whole county, but Powell is diligently working to learn all he can.
He said that he recognized the 911 center could be intimidating for a new dispatcher, so when someone new started, he always told them, “don’t get overwhelmed. Just take it one day at a time. Learn a little bit each day, you’re going to be fine.” Now, he said, he has to remind himself of his own advice.
“I learn a little bit each day. I’ve worked with Dale in different roles since he’s been with the county, so we have a very good professional relationship. He’s bringing me up to speed with a lot of things already.”
As Powell and Wagoner meet with each department heads, Powell said he has learned that one of the strengths of the county are managers “who are willing to think outside the box and willing to bring ideas to (Wagoner) and myself, and have the willingness to face those challenges. Rather than saying they cannot do something, they are willing to explore what’s possible. I love being part of that kind of team.”
Ever the innovator, Powell said as those conversations continue, “I’m always watching out for, ‘is there something outside the box that we can consider doing to help some of these departments?’”
Though, during his sixth day on the job, no such ideas had come up yet, “that is something I’m keeping a close eye out for.”
Overall, Powell said, “the county is in a very good spot right now as far as our employees, our management team, our economic development, our industries, and it’s going to be our responsibility to keep that momentum going.”
Looking back over the various pathways his life took him over the years, from Henry County around the world and back to the place he continues to call home, “I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I wouldn’t have changed a thing. All the way back to when I signed that contract to join the Marine Corps, there were times along the way when I wondered, ‘what did I do?’ but there was a reason for it all. I truly believe that all of us are put here for a certain reason, and it’s up to us to find what that reason is.”
Though there may still be things to learn, and the road will certainly have some bumps along the way, “I’m up for the challenge,” Powell said. “I’m excited to see where this journey goes.”