Trading in his uniform and badge
In his 13 years as a public information officer for the State of Nevada, Trooper Chuck Allen was the face of the Nevada Highway Patrol’s Northern Command that included northwestern Nevada and much of the central part of the Silver State.
As a trooper prior to becoming the agency’s spokesman, the 54-year-old Allen drove the highways ensuring motorists exercised good judgment and kept within the law. At times, though, Allen had to deal with fatal car wrecks and grieving survivors.
It was altogether fitting when he became the Northern Command’s spokesman.
Allen, though, is beginning a new chapter in his life. In November after a vigorous campaign for Washoe County sheriff, the Southern California native edged his opponent, and because of the win, Allen leaves the NHP to become the county’s 26th sheriff this month. The number 26 is unique because Allen graduated from the NHP academy’s 26th class, and a Nevada flag presented to him flew over the Northern Command headquarters on Nov. 26.
On Jan. 11, Allen also concludes a military career than spans 30 years by retiring from the Nevada Air Guard.
A VARIED CAREER
A retirement party attended by his peers and friends this week caused Allen to reminisce about his career as a public information officer and perhaps having the most recognizable face and name to Northern Nevada audiences.
Allen said 2011 emerged as one of the most intense years for him as a PIO, first dealing with the Amtrak-big truck collision north of Fallon in late June, and the IHOP shooting in Carson City on Sept. 6 that resulted in the deaths of five people, including three Nevada Army National Guardsmen.
Initially, Allen arrived at IHOP to perform traffic control. It wasn’t too long afterward that Allen’s superiors asked him to help Carson Sheriff Ken Furlong with the overflow of media requests.
“It was a very shocking moment,” Allen said of the incident.
Once he arrived at IHOP, though, Allen didn’t know any guardsmen had been killed.
“I was in the mobile command center with other law enforcement people,” he recollected. “I heard who will brief the general when he got here. I had no knowledge of what happened.”
Shortly thereafter, Allen said Brig. Gen. Bill Burks, the state’s adjutant general, arrived at the command center and was briefed — not by Allen — on the military fatalities.
The Amtrak collision 35 miles north of Fallon also kept Allen and his back-up PIOs busy for days. Six people, including the driver of the tractor-trailer used for hauling ore, died in the accident. Not only did this incident become a Nevada tragedy, but it also became a world story.
As the investigation unfolded and the National Transportation Safety Board arrived in Fallon to examine the 18-wheeler, Allen was there.
“It’s probably like a doctor looking at a human body,” said Allen at the time. “They can easily determine which parts go to which portion, if you will. Same thing here, just looking at the vehicle, having a mechanical background and vehicle background, a lot of experts and NTSB are down here to assist with that process in an effort to reconstruct and determine the causation of this accident.”
Allen spent his days going back and forth between Reno and Fallon after the accident and also stood by as future events unfolded with the accident.
Earlier that same month, Allen handled media inquiries near the intersection of South Taylor and Center streets after a Colorado man eluded law enforcement personnel from four agencies beginning north of Mineral County to the heart of Fallon.
An innocent driver died when the eluding suspect crashed into his car. Later, in a report issued by Churchill County District Attorney Art Mallory, the Coloradoan took his own life.
“Many different law enforcement agencies were involved including the FBI,” Allen said. “I was addressing the public to let them know.”
Allen also became involved as a PIO when law enforcement and other agencies began searching in September 2007 the Nevada desert and mountains looking for a plane piloted by adventurer Steve Fossett. Five months later, a judge declared the millionaire dead. A hiker eventually found the wreckage and identification belonging to Fossett in October 2008.
One of the worst accidents that Allen handled as a PIO killed four people 10 miles east of Dayton in August 2012. An eastbound Dodge pickup pulling a green trailer with eight young steers and heifers drifted into the oncoming lane, hitting a pickup towing a two-axle flatbed trailer. Both vehicles caught fire after the collision, while the green livestock trailer separated for one reason or another from the truck.
HIS COMPASSIONATE SIDE
“The last 11 years of my career as spokesman have been the most rewarding,” Allen said. “I tried to take positive experience and get us (NHP) recognized in the community.”
But Allen shows a compassionate side, especially when dealing with families who lost a loved one in a traffic accident.
“My heart goes out to people dealing with such a tragedy,” he said.
He was also the spokesman when a trooper died in an automobile accident in February 2008.
Trooper Kara Kelly-Borgognone was a 1992 graduate of Churchill County High School and Columbia (Mo.) College but had worked for the Churchill County Juvenile Probation Office and the state Parole and Probation’s Fallon office before transferring to Reno.
Allen said he was extremely respectful to the family and had on occasions worked with her brother, also a trooper.
As a PIO, Allen is on call 24/7, so he always expects the worse if the phone rings late at night. When the phone rang at 10 p.m. on the night of Kelly-Borgognone’s accident, Allen hurriedly put on his uniform and left for the scene.
After conducting numerous television and newspaper interviews, a mentally exhausted Allen didn’t return home until 2 p.m. the next day.
Additionally, Allen said he had to be careful and keep the information gender neutral because Kelly-Borgognone was the only female trooper in the Northern Command.
Allen, along with other troopers, has helped organize many “Tip a Cop” programs to raise money for nonprofit organizations such as the Nevada Humane Society and Special Olympics.
Although Allen handled the major events, he also assisted local troopers who had to deal with the media. One such trooper was Joe Winchester, who has since retired from the agency.
Winchester, who served many years in the Fallon office, received training in public information and steps in dealing with the local media. Winchester said Allen was a “great help” and provided the local offices with guidance.
Now, Allen’s PIO duties fall to Dave Gibson, a former Fernley trooper now in Reno.
“I was Chuck’s backup for almost two years,” Gibson said, adding that most of his current training has been on-the-job. “He has trained me really well to take on anything that occurs.”
Both Gibson and Allen have attended PIO workshops together along with other first responders who represented police and fire departments, schools and other government agencies.
RESPECT FROM HIS PEERS
Trooper Bob Wright, who also lived in Fallon before transferring to Carson City, graduated from the same academy class, No. 26, almost 24 years ago.
“I worked in Fallon, and he worked in Reno, but he came to all the coalition meetings in Fallon. He did a great job as a PIO and put a positive spin for the NHP.”
Wright said Allen will be a good sheriff for Washoe County.
“He will be in a good leadership role for them in giving a positive spin in the sheriff’s department,” he added.
Many of the area’s top troopers paid their respects to Allen.
Maj. Susan Aller-Schilling, deputy chief for the Northern Command, commended Allen for his 24 years of service in the NHP and said he was leaving for his next chapter in life.
“Chuck has done a wonderful job for the highway patrol,” she said. “His job as PIO was second to none. He put the highway patrol on the map in Reno and put us on a new level.”
Lt. Col. Brian Sanchez also attended the academy with Allen. As the deputy chief for the Nevada Highway Patrol, he said Allen provided “wonderful” guidance when Sanchez was assigned to the Northern Command.
“The leadership he brings is good for the State of Nevada,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez also read certificates of appreciation from Nevada Sens. Harry Reid and Dean Heller and Congressman Mark Amodei.
Sanchez said Allen has been a dear friend and always willing to answer the call.
Allen’s military career also complemented his work as a trooper. Allen, who spent active-duty time in the U.S. Air Force, rose through the enlisted ranks of the Nevada Air National Guard and even spent one tour in Iraq.
“I was confident when Chuck worked with the military because of his leadership style,” Sanchez said, stressing the military role added great support to the state.
Col. Dennis Osborn, chief of the NHP in Carson City, also served in the active Army and in the Nevada Army National Guard in the 1990s.
“Each (military and law enforcement) complement each other because there is discipline in the chain of command and service to the community,” Osborn said. “Service to the country before themselves … that’s the definition of the citizen soldier.”
As Allen prepares to trade in his blues for the sheriff department’s green, colleagues said he will still be “Trooper Chuck” to them but in a different role.
“I’m looking forward continuing my service with Washoe County. I am not going away,” he said. “I’m not really retiring.”