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SEMA Director Ron Walker’s career of unpredictable service

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Ron Walker has long led a life of unpredictable service to his community. 

From a young age, Walker — the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) director — knew he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the State Highway Patrol. For 35 years, Walker rose through the ranks of the state patrol, from working assignments near Truman Lake to eventually becoming the assistant commander for the Field Operations Bureau in Jefferson City. 

Walker technically retired in 2013 but missed being part of a team. A year later, he was appointed to lead SEMA for the first time under the Nixon administration. 

“I wasn’t really sure about it because I was not an emergency management practitioner, but in reality, emergency management is about problem solving,” Walker told The Missouri Times. “It’s problem solving at real high intensity times. You can work on scenarios in advance that would help you, but it’s really hard to create every challenge you’re going to get in a real life event — whether it’s a major flood event, tornado, ice storm.”

“It’s just problem solving and a recognition of what the state’s role is.” 

It was a natural progression for Walker. As a state patrol officer, Walker would often have to deal with the unpredictable, be quick on his feet, and diffuse potentially dangerous situations. At SEMA, that unpredictability remains.

SEMA, housed under the Department of Public Safety, is tasked with preparing for, responding to, and recovering from all emergencies — from natural disasters to potential cybersecurity events to other potential catastrophes. But Walker says the job is about supporting and ensuring local communities are equipped to handle those emergencies. 

“We put all kinds of support out there to help communities be as prepared as possible, to help them have exercises [in place] and buy equipment,” Walker said, stressing Missouri’s large geographical size can make it more complicated for the agency. “The backbone is really local emergency management and local fire services combined with law enforcement to help these communities get through these critical times.” 

Leadership changes meant Walker became the deputy director of SEMA for a brief time in 2017 before DPS Director Sandy Karsten again moved him to the helm in 2018. Still, the job doesn’t end when Walker — or anyone at SEMA, he says — walks out the door at night. 

“The role has a responsibility around the clock, but I’m really fortunate; we have a really robust and prepared senior staff,” Walker said.

And “open disasters” can take years — or even decades — before they are resolved, Walker said. 

Walker doesn’t point to any one specific disaster occurring during his tenure that has stuck out the most to him. Instead, he says each one has a unique but devastatingly lasting impression on the community, and he has to focus on making sure everyone is equipped and prepared. 

“But Missouri is really resilient. We have a long history of disasters, back to the 1993 flood and the Joplin event,” Walker said of the 2011 tornado. “There aren’t many disasters where 160 people lose their lives in 20 minutes. It’s really devastating for communities.”

Walker is nearly a lifelong resident of Jefferson City. He was born in Waynesville and moved to the capital city at a young age. He resides in Taos, about eight miles southeast of Jefferson City with his family. 

“We love our life here. The Midwest is great with great people. I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” he said. 

On the weekends, you can be sure to find Walker enjoying traditional Midwestern fare at the family-owned Town Club in Westphalia with his wife.