Dinah Jeffries, who has served as permanent Orange County Emergency Services Director since August 2016 and has been a county employee for 37 years, announced in July she would retire on Jan. 1, 2021.
“Dinah has been a strong leader of Emergency Services and has built strong relationships with our partners,” said Orange County manager Bonnie Hammersley. “We are grateful for her dedication and commitment to Orange County. She will be hard to replace and missed by many people.”
Jeffries began her Orange County career in June 1983 as a temporary Summer Youth Counselor with the Recreation Division. She was hired in September of that year as a dispatcher with what was then known as Emergency Management (the name changed to OC Emergency Services in 2008.)
She was promoted throughout her career and was appointed as the Interim Emergency Services Director in October 2015. She was hired into the position in August 2016, becoming the first woman and first African-American to lead the department.
“My parents always taught me that if I allowed my race or my gender to limit what I knew I could accomplish, then I was defeated from the onset,” she said.
Growing a thick skin helped her survive in what has traditionally been a male-dominated field that was slow to promote people of color to leadership positions.
“As a woman of color, this definitely made me unique, and even still does today,” she said. “I had to make people see NOT the color, but rather, I needed them to focus on my actions, my character, my ability to lead and do it well. I feel strongly that I accomplished that. I’ve tried to live by the words ‘Don’t strive to make your presence noticed, just make your absence felt.’”
Orange County’s Emergency Services Department is responsible for providing 9-1-1, medical services, fire code inspections and enforcement, emergency management and administrative support for the divisions. Since becoming director, she has overseen her department’s response to numerous disasters within the county, including hurricanes, flooding, snow storms, the OWASA water shutdown and, for the past 200 days, the county’s response to the ongoing COVID pandemic.
“Dinah has been a fixture in the Orange County public safety world for as long as I can remember,” said Chapel Hill Chief of Police Chris Blue. “Her calm, warm, and measured leadership style has served our citizens well, particularly as we have faced the COVID 19 pandemic. I can think of no leader better equipped to help guide us though such unprecedented times. I know I join all of my fellow public safety personnel in wishing her all the best in her well-deserved retirement. She will be missed.”
“I’ve worked alongside Dinah her entire career and I’ve been fortunate to collaborate on many incident commands, training projects and budget sessions with her,” said Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood. “She has always exemplified professionalism in her work and required it from those she supervised. She has been a tremendous asset to our county and she has set the bar very high for whomever is to follow.”
According to Jeffries, her biggest challenge came when she had to relocate her entire department while the headquarters building was renovated. The 911 call center was relocated to the basement of the West Campus Office Building while other personnel found office space in other parts of the county.
“That, by far, was one of the most difficult tasks to date – keeping morale up and making sure there were no noticeable interruptions of service from any of the divisions,” she said.
Jeffries’ leadership helped the county develop a reputation for efficiency and professionalism.
“I am proud of the partnerships I’ve established and maintained through the ups and downs of my career,” she said. “One cannot succeed in this business alone – and one can never take sole credit for any success accomplished; it takes many partners and definitely the support of your team.”
The OWASA shutdown of February 2017 served as a case study for her leadership. On Thursday, Feb. 2, OWASA discovered that excess amount of fluoride had been pumped into its water supply at the Jones Ferry Road water treatment plant. OWASA asked customers to limit their water use while they flushed the system.
The next morning, a water main broke in Chapel Hill. Suddenly, the system found itself without drinkable water. The Orange County Health Department issued a do-not-drink order, forcing restaurants and hotels to close and UNC to cancel classes.
The county’s Emergency Operations Center sprang into action. Within 24 hours, the EOC had procured tens of thousands of bottles of water and set up distribution points throughout Chapel Hill and Carrboro to provide clean water while OWASA repaired the system.
Quick to deflect praise, Jeffries instead credited her team for the seamless and speedy response.
“I am proud of the accomplishments of my team – their unwavering dedication and selfless service to Orange County, our community and the profession,” she said. “I am ‘accomplished’ because of these folks and I will be forever grateful for being allowed the opportunity to lead them and walk with them through my career.”
Jeffries said her retirement plans include enjoying life and spending time with family while looking for her next challenge.