Former DEMA director Jamie Turner dies at 66

Jamie Turner

SMYRNA — Former Delaware Emergency Management Agency (DEMA) director and lifelong firefighter James “Jamie” Turner III died on Thursday at age 66.

“Jamie answered his final alarm today after a long battle with cancer,” noted the Clayton Fire Company in a statement.

Mr. Turner had started his fire service career as a junior member of Clayton Fire Company in 1966, eventually rising to the rank of Deputy Chief.

He’d retired as director of DEMA in July 2015 after holding the position for 13 years. Late last year, DEMA announced that they’d named their training room in Mr. Turner’s honor. The James E. Turner III Educational Center, on Brick Store Landing Road north of Smyrna, holds up to 60 people and is often used for various trainings and emergency meetings. The agency offered its condolences on Thursday.

“Jamie dedicated his life to the state of Delaware, serving in various public safety roles for over 50 years, 13 years as Director of DEMA. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends,” read a DEMA statement.

At the time of his retirement from DEMA, then-Governor Jack Markell saluted Mr. Turner for his service to the state.

“Jamie Turner has dedicated much of his life to the service of our citizens,” Gov. Jack Markell said in a statement at the time. “His impact on our public safety community extends beyond his years as DEMA director. He has touched hundreds of firefighters as an instructor at the Delaware Fire School and as the Delaware Volunteer Firefighter’s Association executive secretary. The citizens of our great state are forever grateful for his commitment to public safety.”

Gov. John Carney expressed his condolences on Thursday as well.

“He was a family man and a true public servant,” said Gov. Carney in a statement. “For 13 years as Director of DEMA, Jamie guided our state through emergencies and helped protect the lives of Delawareans. I got to know Jamie well throughout my career in state government and as Lieutenant Governor. He could always be counted on for direct and sound advice. Jamie committed his life and career to serving others, and will truly be missed. Tracey and I are thinking about his family during this difficult time.”

Before being appointed as DEMA’s director by then-Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, Mr. Turner served as a senior instructor at the Delaware State Fire School. He began working at the school part-time in 1969, but was hired on as a full-time instructor in 1976. During his employment, he taught on a variety of subjects including hazardous materials response, structural firefighting, fire officer courses, pump operation and more until he retired in March 2000.

Mr. Turner was also a long-standing member of the Delaware Volunteer Firefighters Association. According to Warren Jones, the current executive secretary of the DVFA, Mr. Turner was the first to hold his position in the association.

“He became the first executive secretary in the association many years ago,” said Mr. Jones. “I knew him since he first started at the Fire School. He was an icon for the fire service in Delaware. He was a great individual and a great human being. He was also a great friend to a lot of us, and he’s going to be missed.”

Delaware State Fire School officials noted that even though he’d retired from public service, he was often seen at various state and local fire association meetings and events.

The fire school’s director, Robert Newnam said that the vast majority of fire officers serving in the state today were affected in some way by Mr. Turner’s time at the school — thousands of recruits having been personally trained by him.

“Jamie helped progress the programs at the school,” Mr. Newnam said. “He started off doing our basic level classes and in ‘91 and then he took over the officer programs and did those for almost a decade. Many of the fire officers of today in the state, probably received both their basic and fire officer training from programs that Jamie wrote and maintained. He’s had an enormous impact on the fire service in this state.”

Mr. Newnam also noted that Mr. Turner did much to further the state’s ability to respond to hazardous material incidents.

“He was incredibly skilled with hazardous materials,” said Mr. Newnam. “He was an integral part of the state’s response team and was well-known nationally for his ability to understand and mitigate those types of incidents.”

Working alongside Mr. Turner for a few decades, Mr, Newnam said many of the other instructors called him “the general.”

“He had a knack for getting things done, and everyone knew it,” said Mr. Newnam. “They called him the general because he wanted thing done in a certain way, and wanted to be sure that everyone was following the rules and regulations strictly. He truly had a high-value impact on the fire service in the state.”

Called a firefighting icon by many first responders in the state, Mr. Turner participated in many emergency responses and served the public during significant historical events.

Executive secretary of the DVFA at the time, Mr. Turner spent 10 days in New York City supporting a ceremonial unit command post that handled the funerals of the 343 firefighters killed in the line of duty during the 9/11 attack.

In an effort coordinated by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, he arrived with two other Delawareans in New York about eight days after the attacks at a time when the death toll was still unofficial.

“When I got there, they were still digging and pulling people out,” Mr. Turner told this paper at the time.

On the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, a group of fire department ambulances and paramedics from Delaware traveled to the Meadowlands to join a staging area created in case additional responders and treatment services were needed.

“You had that urge to go and help.” Mr. Turner said at the time. “That’s based on discipline and accountability. In the public safety business we’ve always been taught to take care of our own. You never walk away from them until they’re taken care of.”

More recently, he was on watch as director of DEMA when Hurricane Sandy roared up the east coast in 2012. Although New Jersey saw more damage from the weather event than Delaware, Mr. Turner oversaw the precautionary evacuation of areas where more than 50,000 residents lived, according to this paper’s archives.

A longtime friend and associate, Clayton Fire Company secretary Kevin Wilson said that Mr. Turner was a hard-working perfectionist with a “gruff exterior and a marshmallow interior.”

“We grew up together in Clayton — he was about 7 years older than me — but I joined the fire company as a junior member at age 16 too and I was one of the guys Jamie took under his wing,” said Mr. Wilson. “Jamie was the kind of guy you didn’t want to disappoint, because if you messed up, you’d get what we all called: Turnerized. He’d come out and jump up and down and yell at you for whatever you did wrong, but then it’d be right back to work with no grudges or hurt feelings. In that way, he brought out the best in everyone who worked with him. He wanted things to be done right, because in our line of work that can mean the difference between life and death. Needless to say, many of us in the fire service have been Turnerized at one point or another.”

It was noted in Mr. Turner’s obituary, that he was fond of saying: “if you lose your head, you’ll lose your ass!”

Mr. Turner’s softer side came out with his family, friends and compassion toward his fellow citizens, said Mr. Wilson.

“He’d go out of his way to help anyone at any time,” he said. “His wife, kids and grandkids were his pride and joy, he was very much a family man. Anyone who knew Jamie knew both sides of him.”

Mr. Turner is survived by his wife of 37 years, two daughters and four grandchildren. A viewing will be held on Jan. 3 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Clayton Fire Hall, located at 300 East Street in Clayton. Masonic services will begin at 1 p.m., followed by the celebration of life service. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Clayton Fire Company, c/o Scholarship Fund, PO Box 1050, Clayton, DE 19938.

Condolence letters may be sent by visiting fariesfuneralhome.com.

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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