BEMIDJI -- Christopher Muller calls himself a "railroad" guy. He loves working with model trains and watching them rumble through Bemidji in-person.
As director of Beltrami County Emergency Management, Muller himself is a sort of conductor, leading the response for the local government through times of disaster. These days, his work is especially important amid the global coronavirus pandemic, both online and off.
Before the outbreak, Muller said the biggest disasters the county had to work on were a series of powerful wind storms that swept through the area in July 2012. However, he noted that a pandemic was always a possibility, and something to prepare for.
"When you get into emergency management, it's referred to as all-hazard planning," Muller said. "You plan for everything, whether that be tornados, blizzards and wild fires. One of the things we've also prepared for has been pandemics, and it's always been one of the ones that kind of scared me. The last three months have proven just how dangerous pandemics can be.
"We've had our scares and our close calls with a few outbreaks around the world, but none of them had really crept into our backyard," Muller said. "The last three months now have proven just how dangerous pandemics can be."
According to Muller, once cases started increasing in other parts of the country, like Washington state, the county began ramping up its planning.
"Every month, as part of emergency planning, we have all public responders come together to discuss hazards that go into our effort," Muller said. "Over the last few weeks, that planning has really ramped up everyone's role in this."
As part of the effort, Muller said he's been working closely with other entities like the Public Health Department to ensure the county, which already has four cases, remains prepared.
"I have to applaud our Public Health Department, our Health and Human Services Department, our administration at both the city and county, as well as our health care providers in the community," Muller said. "We're all making sure we're taking care of each other. We have a lot of different people both in our office and out of our office that are stepping up to make sure we have a coordinated and efficient response."
Managing the situation on social media
Along with his work in the office, Muller has also been regularly posting updates about the situation on Facebook. However, this didn't begin with the current crisis.
Born and raised in Cass Lake and having studied law enforcement at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, Muller came to the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office after working at the Leech Lake Police Department as a dispatcher.
About seven years ago, when Muller was assistant emergency management director and communications assistant supervisor for Beltrami County, the Sheriff's Office was looking to gather some public feedback and did so through a new Facebook page.
"When it first started up, it was just one of those things that was out there, it didn't have a huge following," Muller said. "Then, one day, we had some large wildfires that were impacting us. We thought, we have this out here, why don't we try to send a message out to people so they don't call 911, and instead we can explain what's going on with real-time information."
Since then, the Beltrami County Emergency Management Facebook page has grown to have more than 10,600 followers. Muller meanwhile was promoted to the full-time emergency management director and in 2016, the position was merged with the 911 communications supervisor after Beryl Wernberg retired.
"When he took over, he had big shoes to fill in that Beryl had done the job for so long. From my perspective, he's done a really great job filling that roll," said Beltrami County Administrator Kay Mack. "The Facebook page he manages has become a complete go-to site for the area, where people can get information on emergency information or just general information. He's always been diligent in how we manage that page."
More recently, in a joint meeting with county partners, Muller said it was decided to have a single place to get messaging out, which has been the page.
"We are also using the Facebook page to try to correct and send out accurate information to counter misinformation and rumors that spread in other online community groups," Muller said. "While we can't address every issue, answer every question or provide every detail, we can at least dispel the obvious rumors."
In one of the more recent Facebook posts, though, Muller took a more lighthearted approach and shared his passion for trains.
"It's not a total secret that I'm an avid model railroader," Muller wrote. "After our evening update call and checking messages, I went down to my basement and started tinkering with my trains. Of course I can't get the thought of COVID-19 off my mind, but this is a great distraction to decompress."
The model train he shared on Facebook had a simple but important message during this time: thanking first responders.