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November 7, 2009

Reporter's Notebook: Fire chief leaves big shoes to be filled

When I asked Oneonta Fire Chief Robert Barnes if his role as the city's emergency coordinator was something that evolved over time after he became chief in 1991, he had a quick response.

"I came with that," Barnes said Thursday.

Barnes was the Otsego County emergency services coordinator for a decade before joining the fire department as assistant chief in 1990. He made chief the following year.

A decade later, the United States was attacked by Islamic extremists on 9/11.

That event put a spotlight on emergency management and disaster planning in communities across the county. Oneonta was no different.

For Barnes, his duties as emergency coordinator began to take up more and more of his time as chief, he said Thursday, after announcing he would retire next month.

"Since 9/11, that has taken a far bigger role than it ever once was," Barnes said.

For Oneonta, weather events such as flooding, ice storms, snow storms and wind events pose perhaps the biggest risks, according to the city's disaster preparedness plan, which Barnes helped develop.

Other risks outlined in the plan include hazardous materials spills along the Interstate 88 and the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks.

Only in the last few years has the city paid Barnes a stipend for his extra duties. Among those who had lauded Barnes' career this week was former Mayor Kim Muller.

"He certainly has set a model for professionalism," Muller said.

Barnes is also a member of the State Emergency Management Office Incident Management Assistance Team and is an instructor who trains firefighters.

_____

Long before Barnes was a fire chief, he was a sheriff's deputy.

While discussing his upcoming retirement Thursday, Barnes, 57, said being in law enforcement prepared him for being chief in a way that being a rank-and-file firefighter couldn't.

"Police officers are trained to be paper shufflers," Barnes said.

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