Sussex County Emergency Operations director announces retirement

Georgetown, Del., March 19, 2024: Sussex County’s longtime emergency manager is preparing himself and the public for a new season – that of retirement.

Joseph L. Thomas, director of the County’s Emergency Operations Center and a familiar face to the public and news media during hazardous weather events over the past quarter-century, publicly announced on Tuesday, March 19, 2024, his plans to step down this month as the County’s lead emergency manager. His last day on the job will be March 28.

“We have accomplished so much since I took this position in 1997, and I am very proud to have led a great team that has made the Sussex County Emergency Operations Center an envy among its peers, not just regionally, but nationally,” Mr. Thomas said. “I want to thank everyone who has been part of that effort along the way, from our dispatchers and support staff to the County Council and administration. It truly has been a remarkable experience, and I’m honored to have been part of such a dedicated group who work every day to ensure the public’s safety.”

The Sussex County Emergency Operations Center serves as the hub for public safety operations in southern Delaware, answering more than 120,000 9-1-1 calls annually and dispatching police, fire, and emergency medical services personnel 24 hours a day. Additionally, the center prepares for, trains, and responds to disasters of all sorts, including snowstorms, floods, hurricanes, nor'easters, chemical spills, and hazardous materials incidents.

Among some of the accomplishments during his tenure, the County built a new state-of-the-art EOC complex in 2008, and expanded the facility last year to house the County’s EMS offices; adopted leading technologies to better assist the public during emergencies, including text-to-911, as well as the Smart911 profile service; increased staff and implemented the call-taker model to more efficiently handle dispatching for the growing number of calls for service each year; and earned international accreditation as a police/fire/EMS dispatch center of excellence.

For as much behind-the-scenes work the job has entailed over the years to lead a center of 40 dispatchers and support staff, though, it’s been the role as the County’s emergency manager that has often put Thomas in the public eye, and, quite literally, that of the storm. Among the most memorable, he helped coordinate various emergency and government resources to respond to widescale events, including back-to-back nor'easters in 1998, two blizzards in 2010, ‘Superstorm’ Sandy in 2012, and, most recently, the deadly EF-3 tornado that touched down in the Greenwood/Bridgeville area on April 1, 2023.

Thomas said working with his peers, not just in Delaware, but regionally – he currently serves as chair of Delmarva Emergency Task Force, a regional emergency planning group comprising emergency managers, law enforcement, and transportation officials from Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia – is what he will miss most as he steps aside. “I won’t miss the handwringing over whether and how to evacuate, or the early morning calls during a snowstorm to assess road conditions, or the sleepless nights worrying about the ‘what if’ scenarios of emergency management,” Mr. Thomas said. “But I will miss the people sitting at the table who have helped make this job and this journey easier in all my years. Those are the friendships and connections that are most special, and endure well after the cleanup from a disaster has ended.”

County Council on Tuesday honored Mr. Thomas for his 38 years of service to Sussex County, which began as a part-time dispatcher in 1986, presenting him with a tribute.

“Joe knows the fire service, the emergency management business, and what it takes to provide public safety services to the people of Sussex County,” said County Council President Michael H. Vincent, a past fire company chief himself. “Sussex County has been fortunate to have his direction and dedication during some of our most trying times. I have no doubt the gains our EOC has made and the lessons learned over the years will help carry us through the next storm as Joe, hopefully, gets to enjoy clear skies and calm seas in the retirement years ahead.”

County Administrator Todd F. Lawson said officials hope to fill the emergency manager position in the coming weeks, well ahead of the 2024 Atlantic hurricane season that begins June 1, though Mr. Thomas will assist part-time, as needed, in the transition.


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