Lee Levesque, the first director of emergency management for the Town of Bluffton, stands in front of the “SLOSH” map, which shows expected storm surge levels, at Bluffton Town Hall. COURTESY TOWN OF BLUFFTON

Bluffton transplant Lee Levesque had a short trip from his former job to his new position as the town’s first director of emergency management, a post previously held by a member of the Bluffton Police Department’s senior staff.

A U.S. Army veteran from Honeoye in western New York, Levesque left his post as captain at the Bluffton Township Fire District headquarters where he served for seven years, most recently as the primary community risk reduction officer.

Adding the new department was a decision made a year ago as the town put together the budget for the current fiscal year, according to Interim Town Manager Scott Marshall.

“The town has always had an emergency manager, but it was filled by a police officer on the command staff as an additional duty. This duty would rotate roughly every couple of years,” said Marshall. “With the threats associated with being a coastal town and with the scope of responsibilities in the police department expanding along with town growth, we thought it was time to establish a full-time emergency management position reporting directly to the executive office.”

For Levesque, it is a continuation of his serving others.

“I have been a firefighter in some form or fashion – either volunteer or paid – since 1988, so it will be 33 years this September. I had the pleasure to work for the Bluffton Township Fire District for seven years before this new opportunity arose,” he said. “I was in the fire prevention division and was tasked with identifying all the hazards that were injuring our community.”

Levesque left his small hometown south of Rochester to join the Army. After his final tour of duty in Washington, D.C., where he met his wife, Karyn, they moved south in 1998 to be near her family and raise their own. Prior to joining the BTFD, he was a firefighter for Lady’s Island-St. Helena Fire District, and a code enforcement officer for the City of Beaufort.

Levesque’s responsibilities at the fire district included developing plans and programs to reduce the likelihood of such hazards occurring, or minimizing their impact if they did occur. He also served as the public information officer and was one of four fire investigators for the district.

Applying for the new directorship was bittersweet, Levesque said.

“I was so lucky in my role with the fire department as I got to do what I loved, and I got to do it with some really great people. Then I heard about the emergency manager position coming open here in my own hometown,” he said. “I spoke with my wife, my parents, and had some great conversations with my mentors, that all led me to the conclusion that I could broaden my ability to help people if I were able to serve as an emergency management director.”

Levesque echoed Marshall’s comments about the need to create the post.

“The growth in the town, and the scope of both law enforcement and emergency management grow with a community, and inevitably it out-grows the ability of a single person serving both roles,” he said. “To that end, town leadership recognized the value in hiring someone to focus full time on emergency management.”

Levesque views his new job as taking on a different role in a related field, and acknowledged that it will be a bit of a challenge.

“My career in the fire service has always had a component of emergency management, be it preventing bad things from happening, responding if they do, and helping people recover after those events. Emergency management is often a function of the fire service in America today,” said Levesque. “Perhaps most challenging to me in this new role is my own learning curve. Having served in a specific field for more than 30 years, I had a firm understanding of the work and the people needed to accomplish the requirements of that work.”

Emergency management might be an element of both firefighting and civic duties, but there are some distinct differences, as Levesque realizes.

“The difference between being a firefighter and an emergency manager is a matter of time and effort. Firefighters need to be quick and physically able to accomplish any number of tasks,” he said. “Emergency managers, on the other hand, are long-range planners and use more brain power than physical strength. Both jobs, however, require a team of capable people, and to that end I have simply traded one awesome team for another.”

With June just around the corner and preparations in the works ahead of the 2021 hurricane season, the new emergency management director has had his hands full.

“Having only been in this role for barely 100 days, I have been reviewing the plans created before me, and simply polishing them up in preparation for this coming season. Most comforting is the fact that town staff have an extremely solid foundation from which to build in the coming years and this year that foundation will serve us well as we work through the season,” Levesque said.

While hurricanes are always at the front of everyone’s mind this time of year, they are not the only situations for which emergency preparations are necessary.

“Emergency management is, in fact, a lot more than hurricane planning. I stepped into this role in the midst of a pandemic that demanded a great deal of attention. Pandemic plans have been a living document that we have been adjusting and tweaking most recently,” he said. “Additionally, we are always planning for every other conceivable hazard – earthquake, wildfire, tsunami, man-made disaster, etc. All of those require constant consideration and resource assessment to ensure that we are doing everything that we can to protect the people of Bluffton.”

What exactly is emergency management? Levesque was ready with an answer.

“People all the time ask me, and the answer is in the question! If you don’t know what emergency management is, then it is working well because the emergencies must be getting managed well,” he said. “Ultimately this department is a ‘palace guard’ with an eye toward any and every risk that might befall our kingdom. The key to a successful guard is the relationships they have with those they protect.”

Marshall said there were more than 80 applicants for the position of emergency management director.

“Lee has the perfect background for the position like this,” he said. “He’s got emergency management experience, he’s got real-world emergency management in the fire department, and he’s got the educational background for the job.”

Levesque said the single greatest thing about his new job is the people.

“I am meeting and working with people I would never have had the chance to. They are teaching me things about myself and about processes that I may have never known. And on top of all that, we are working together to maintain and improve the very town that I have the pleasure to call home,” he said. “I am my own worst critic in this role, as I find it challenging to not yet have all the answers I feel I should have. But it is challenges just like that which piqued my curiosity and caused me to apply for this role to begin with, so I will simply remain committed, and know that I have a great team around me who will ensure our success.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.