Richie Burke: Citizen of the Year

When it comes to public safety, if you’re doing your job right you’re probably going unnoticed. Perhaps that’s why it has taken this long to recognize lifelong county resident Richie Burke as the 2016 Rappahannock News Citizen of the Year.

Richie Burke, photographed for a Foothills Forum-sponsored series at his desk at the county building office, is the Rappahannock News 2016 Citizen of the Year. By Luke Christopher

So often a resource to our little newspaper, yet so rarely a quoted source, emergency services coordinator Burke provides the Rapp News with weekly updates on emergency response calls, house fires and car accidents. Supervisors often pepper Burke with technical questions during their monthly meetings, answered quickly and without fluff, exuding the confidence of a man with three decades local experience in public safety.

Though forthcoming and approachable, the common refrain from Burke during interview attempts in his whirring and chirping building office in Washington: “I’ll give you the information that you need, or show you where to find it, but don’t quote me on this.”

In his third year as county administrator in 1989, John McCarthy hired a young Richie Burke as the county’s building official. “And he has never looked back,” the recently retired McCarthy said of the 57-year-old father of two, noting his success holding two other county posts as emergency services coordinator and emergency 911 coordinator.

“He’s always been a workhorse, and taken on any job or responsibility we’ve asked of him,” McCarthy said, specifically referencing Burke’s role in navigating the county’s adoption of a 911 system in the early ’90s, a task not expected of a building inspector. “And that was really his construction. He worked directly with the phone/tech companies and the consultants, and the sheriff’s office, sat down with them and hashed it out. Basically he’s been the patron saint of public safety in Rappahannock for all of his tenure there.”

Conversations with Burke are commonly interrupted by eruptions from an emergency response radio that stays on his hip. Last year, Burke ran more than 90 percent of emergency response calls for his Sperryville fire company.

Burke (left) with fellow SVFD officers Fred Thompson (center) and Cody Dodson. Courtesy photo

As the county’s Emergency 911 coordinator, Burke manages the development of the 911 emergency response addressing system, which provides a clear and concise address for faster response times for fire and rescue crews during emergencies. As emergency services coordinator, Burke represents our county with the state, and develops updates to our local emergency plan. He has served as president of the Fire & Rescue Association on several occasions during the past decades, which serves as the collective governing body for the seven all-volunteer companies in the county. He is also chairman of the Fire Levy Board.

McCarthy, Citizen of the Year in 2000, said that Burke exemplifies public service.

“Because, while he has the paid job as the building official, emergency manager and 911 coordinator, he has spent a whole lot of his off duty hours as a volunteer in Sperryville [at the fire department] for all those years. Almost all of his time relates to public safety in Rappahannock.”

Burke, who lives in his hometown of Woodville with his wife Robin, joined the Sperryville Volunteer Fire Department in May of 1983, and served as chief for 18 of the last 33 years.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff is often involved in the aftermath of the more horrendous car accidents in the county, and says Rappahannock’s emergency responders deserve all the credit and respect we can give them. “I think Richie runs a good show,” said Goff. “He’s got a tough job; it’s a big county to cover, with very little resources. So he’s always had his work cut out for him.”

Stonewall-Hawthorne District Supervisor Chris Parrish said last Friday that he’s thought for years that Richie Burke deserved Citizen of the Year honors.

“It’s long overdue,” Parrish said over a cup of coffee at Before & After Cafe on Main Street in Sperryville. “He’s lived here all his life. He is dedicated to the county, and servicing the county, not just in the building office but in the volunteer fire department.”

Burke graduated from Rappahannock County High School in 1977. Both of his daughters, Molly and Katie, are also RCHS graduates.

After Burke started working in the building office he had a parallel role in the volunteer fire department, and that segued into his role as emergency response coordinator, Parrish said. Burke became the emergency services coordinator in July 2005.

For six years, until this year, Parrish has worked with Burke on the county’s safety committee, which among other things, produces the 417-page emergency operations plan for the county.

Parrish said that Burke has so much to keep track of, so he’s a very busy man.

“He’s a humble guy. He’s a great guy. And he absolutely deserves this award,” Parrish said. “And I hope one day he’ll run for supervisor, and he’s in my district. I think he would be a really valuable asset in that capacity, for the county — especially given his common sense and his experience, and his willingness to go the extra yard.”

John Lesinski, Hampton district supervisor and chairman of the Safety Committee, weighs in on Burke’s value.

“I think he’s probably one of the most under-appreciated people in the county,” Lesinski said. “A lot of times county employees kind of work behind the scenes. They’re working without a lot of attention or accolades, and they tend to go underappreciated, until they’re gone or until such time that something goes missing and you realize that person was the one who was responsible for it all those years.

“Whether it’s the building inspector piece, or the E-911 portion, there’s also the volunteer side too,” Lesinski continued, referencing Burke’s 33 years as a member of the Sperryville Volunteer Fire Department. “And he’s also involved in the Fire and Rescue Association, and involved in managing the fire levy, and the public safety committee. He’s obviously got to be working hand in hand with the sheriff’s department. So he touches about every element of public safety that you can think of in this county; whether it’s construction matters, or whether it’s emergency response, he’s got his fingerprints on a lot of this.”

Technology has changed tremendously since Burke first joined the county government.

“As it impacts emergency response, you’ve got to be on top of all the innovations,” Lesinski said. “He’s had to navigate, or walk a fine line between making sure that we have all of the modern capabilities for emergency response, but with what’s often a very limited budget.”

McCarthy said that in regard to technology, everything changes every 36 to 48 months.

“It differs, whether it’s the handset, or the dispatching console, or the software; but something’s changing all the time. So it’s a constant re-education process,” McCarthy said. “He basically started at the, you know, the pre-digital era, and has had to evolve with the times and with the technology, and has stayed, generally, several steps ahead of it.”

Lesinski described how, recently, Burke saved the county a boatload of money in managing the county’s mandatory radio upgrade.

“This could’ve been something that costed the county seven figures, but he was instrumental in leading a partnership with Fauquier County and Culpeper County so that we were able to participate in getting radio upgrades with them,” Lesinski said, which drastically reduced the county’s financial obligation since we paid in with two larger counties. “If we’d have gone it alone, the cost to the taxpayer probably would’ve doubled or even tripled. He didn’t do that all by himself, I mean John McCarthy was involved in that too, but he was the guy with the expertise, and he was the guy who had a seat at the table with Culpeper and Fauquier, and was instrumental in making it happen.”

If Richie Burke stopped showing up to work tomorrow:

“It’d be a terrible crisis,” McCarthy said easily. “I mean we’ve had the enormous advantage of having somebody who knew fire and rescue inside and out from his personal volunteer experience, also leading the aspects of communications and integration with law enforcement — and having built the 911 system from the beginning, it’s hard to replicate that skillset that’s got that institutional memory too. It would just be a terrible problem. He’s a lynchpin of that part of county government.”

At the end of her first year as county administrator, Debbie Keyser commends Burke’s “leadership, and depth and breadth of knowledge in emergency management, fire management, state legislation and county ordinances.”

“His ability to be a team player, and coordinate and organize activities with so many different agencies, such as the Shenandoah National Park, our Sheriff’s office, and multiple county jurisdictions also contributes to his many accomplishments,” Keyser continued. “During his tenure with the county and with the fire and rescue organizations, I would expect the biggest change and challenge he has faced in emergency management has been the introduction and significant growth of technology. Mr. Burke’s skills in the IT arena have progressed along with the growth of technology as he also leads our County’s emergency management technology efficiently and effectively with limited financial resources.”

Former county school board member Lesinski said that even though he’s only served as a supervisor for a year, “In that short period of time, you really come to realize how important Richie is, and how integral he is to public safety in the county. But the Citizen of the Year thing, I think that’s reflective of the body of work, of the 28 years, you know? The first thing I would say is: What took everyone so long to realize that he was the right guy for this award,” Lesinski chuckled.

“But better late than never, I guess.”