Robert Bieniecki has spent nearly 40 years protecting citizens through his work in the military, law enforcement and emergency management. He has flown planes during the Persian Gulf War, maintained aircraft for the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels and retired as a captain at the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office. Now, he is serving as director of Douglas County Emergency Management during a global pandemic.
Yet, he remains humble. “I like helping people. I think I’ve always been a helper and wanted to provide community service,” he said.
Robert enjoys change, challenges and new opportunities, and he thinks that comes from being raised by a father who was in the military.
“When I was in the sixth grade, they picked kids to be crossing guards and I was one of them. They gave us these little belts and they had a badge on them. I thought that was cool and that’s kind of when I decided I wanted to do something, like my father, where I can wear a badge and uniform,” he said with a chuckle.
He was born in Ogdensburg, New York, but his family moved to several states before settling in Cape May, New Jersey, where he attended school from eighth grade through high school graduation.
His father was in the Coast Guard and his brother was in the Air Force, so he joined the Navy. He celebrated his 18th birthday at boot camp in Orlando, Florida, and was then stationed in Virginia Beach, Virginia, for four years.
In December 1986, after a vigorous selection process, Robert was chosen to join the world-famous Blue Angels as a maintenance crew chief. Each year, he trained for three months in California and then traveled to a different city every weekend from March to November for air shows. At Blue Angels shows, six jets perform synchronized aerobatics. The maintenance crew does a preflight inspection and flight control check before takeoff and it also is done in sync. “Our uniforms needed to be perfect and polished. We also received a lot of training in etiquette,” he said.
Before and after shows, Robert posed for lots of photos and signed autographs. While Robert didn’t fly a jet, he did get a memorable back seat ride while the pilot did all sorts of maneuvers. “It was pretty cool,” he said with a big smile. Robert was part of the Blue Angels for three years and is still a member of the alumni association. “Once a Blue, always a Blue,” he said.
At age 26, Robert attended Aircrewman flight school and became a P-3 flight engineer. He was stationed in Brunswick, Maine, and was there about six months before deploying to Italy during the Persian Gulf War. For six months, he spent time in Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey, Germany and other nearby countries flying missions where they monitored ships and submarines in the Mediterranean Sea and Red Sea.
He left active duty in 1992 and went to the Navy Reserves. While in the Reserves, he mostly flew planes out of New Orleans and did anti-narcotic work in places like El Salvador, Ecuador and Puerto Rico. He recalled his team chasing down a boat that had about $93 million worth of drugs on it.
When he retired from the Navy Reserves in January 2004, he had more than 3,000 hours of flying. “I loved it and I miss it,” he said, of flying planes.
He then moved to the Kansas City area and worked as the assistant coordinator for Douglas County Emergency Management from 1993 to 1995.
In 1995, Robert applied and took a civil service test in hopes of joining the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office. He was hired and attended the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center in Hutchinson. While at the Sheriff’s Office, Robert quickly moved up the ranks and worked in a variety of positions until his retirement 20 years later. He worked in the jail, was a patrol officer, led the Personnel Unit, helped train fellow officers, worked in administration and served as the accreditation manager.
As a captain at the Sheriff’s Office, he was in charge of the medical and mental health services contract. He received a Second Chance Act grant for the re-entry program and started working with the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council in Johnson County. He was drawn to the work because he had a son who was involved in the criminal justice system. Robert said he watched his son struggle to navigate the system. “It was difficult for him to get his driver’s license back. He’d sit on the phone. Nobody was talking to him or listening to him. When people don’t make good decisions and then try to recover from that, they can’t because the system is set up as to where they often fail.”
As a kid, Robert said he was shy and timid. He believes his confidence grew as he gained experience. “I never thought I would work in law enforcement. I never really was a fighter as a kid, but later in life, I became a fire arms instructor and defense tactic instructor.”
He said being in law enforcement has a lot of emotional highs and lows. “I liked how it felt to change someone’s tire who was broken down and needed help.” On the flip side, he said, stopping someone at 2 a.m. and not knowing who is in the car as you are walking up to it can be frightening. He also recalled an encounter with someone who was threatening to throw two knives at him. “You are relying on your training and education.”
Looking back, Robert said he wonders why he has survived situations where his life was in danger, including those in the military. For example, once his fueled-up aircraft was struck by lightning, causing a fireball effect. He also was intercepted by Tunisia aircraft for being in their air space. “I forget about half of the stuff I survived until I really think about it. I guess some of it is luck and some skill.”
In 2015, Robert retired from law enforcement.
He then got a real estate license and sold houses in the Kansas City area until becoming Douglas County’s first Criminal Justice Coordinator in August 2016. While he was coordinator, Douglas County started a pretrial release program, house arrest program and behavioral health court.
In September 2019, six months before the COVID pandemic hit, he was named Douglas County Emergency Management Director. Emergency Management’s responsibility is to make sure agencies are ready to respond to any disaster or event through planning and training. When the event happens, the Department’s role is to help coordinate the efforts and resources to help residents who are affected.
For many years, Robert said, Emergency Management’s work wasn’t well known; however, that changed May 28, 2019, when a tornado struck Douglas County. That same year, Emergency Management also was instrumental in responding to historic flooding in the county that caused major damage.
Since March 2020, Emergency Management has been facilitating COVID-19 response and recovery efforts. Robert and his staff have spent countless hours planning, coordinating and collaborating with agencies throughout Douglas County. “So much happens behind the scenes,” Robert said. He recalled creating the first Unified Command structure on a piece of paper in his office with Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical Chief Shaun Coffey. They had activated the Emergency Operations Center and worked from there for about two weeks until everything shut down except for essential services.
Since then, Robert and his staff have worked tirelessly to help keep the community healthy and safe. Robert oversees an approximately $297,000 annual budget, two full-time employees, one-part-time employee, and three duty officers who are paid as needed.
County Administrator Sarah Plinsky appreciates Robert’s flexibility and capability to adapt quickly, especially in times of crisis. “We have modified Unified Command countless times to fit what we needed in the moment, and Robert and his team have led us through each step,” she said.
One of Robert’s greatest assets, Sarah said, is his relationship-building skills. “Emergency Management works with hundreds of community volunteers, first responders and public safety stakeholders. Robert has invested time to build those relationships and maintain them with excellent communication. He holds himself and the team accountable.”
Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health Director Dan Partridge said he admires Robert’s problem-solving skills, patient demeanor, ability to listen and willingness to push through tough challenges. “I respect and admire how he goes about his work and have truly enjoyed getting to know and work with him.”
Robert said he is most proud of the vaccination clinics that were held at the Douglas County Fairgrounds between January and April. He said they worked diligently to improve those clinics where about 55,000 vaccinations were administered. He credits Deputy Director Jillian Rodrigue and Duty Officer Kate Dinneen who did “most of the leg work.”
As more people receive vaccinations, Robert is hopeful that the community will return to pre-pandemic conditions. “People all of sudden know who Emergency Management is and I want to take that recognition and build on it,” he said.