First responders benefit from organization’s 20 years of support |

First responders benefit from organization’s 20 years of support

Bill and Susan Drown, shown here at the 2015 Red Light Ball, are key forces behind the event's origins and longevity. The event celebrates its 20th anniversary on Saturday.
John Hart/ | The Union

A contentious murder case and community turmoil in the late 1990’s led to the creation of Nevada County’s most active support organization for first responders.

Longtime residents will remember when Sam Strange was arrested and later convicted of murdering two teenage girls. Roiling at the criminal justice system, Strange’s mother and others launched a recall effort against the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office, District Attorney and Superior Court Judges.

Enter Willard “Bill” Drown.

“I was asked to pull together community leaders to support those who were the target of the recall,” said Drown. “I did it because I love this county and I wanted to do something that was meaningful for the future of the county.”

The group Drown assembled helped quash the recall efforts. Under Drown’s leadership, those same men and women decided to expand their support for public safety organizations. The Nevada County Law Enforcement and Fire Protection Council was born, and it celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

“Our goal has always been to support law enforcement and firefighters so that no man or woman would lose their life because they didn’t have the right training or equipment,” said Drown. “We never want someone to get shot or die in a fire because we didn’t do enough. I never want a man or woman down on my watch.”

The nonprofit council’s mission is “… to provide support and assistance to public law enforcement and fire protection agencies located in Nevada County by making a meaningful contribution to such agencies both in the form of better equipment and in support and furtherance of their programs and policies.”

In the years since its inception in 1999, the council has purchased or donated more than $1 million worth of equipment, support, and training for local first responders. Among the many dozens of contributions to public safety agencies are thermal imaging cameras for the Grass Valley Fire Department, an incident command trailer for the Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue program, first responder medical kits for the Nevada City Police Department, a fire truck for the Graniteville Fire Department, and “Drunk Buster” pedal carts and impairment goggles for the Grass Valley Police Department.

The Nevada County Law Enforcement and Fire Protection Council has also donated thousands of dollars in scholarships to students pursuing degrees in law enforcement and fire protection, and sponsored dozens of community educational programs such as “Every 15 Minutes,” ”Keeping Kids Safe,” and “Safe and Sober” grad night events.

To fund its altruistic outreach, the council conducts a variety of fun fundraisers each year, including Saturday’s Red Light Ball.

The first Red Light Ball was hosted by Keith and Jeanette Royal on Jan. 8, 1999, to celebrate Keith’s 1998 election as Nevada County’s 33rd sheriff. The gala at the fairgrounds’ main exhibit hall saw more than 300 of Nevada County’s glitterati in attendance.

“We wanted to have a party and celebrate with friends and supporters,” Keith Royal said. “A close friend, Bob Lenney, came up with the name, ‘The Red Light Ball.’ It alluded to both Nevada County’s historic red-light districts and first responders’ red lights.”

The ball featured a western barbecue and dancing to 1950’s and 60’s music performed live by Rocky ‘n the Revellettes, complete with the band’s trademark costume changes. The event was so popular, the Royals decided to make it an annual affair.

“I already had the second one planned,” said Jeanette Royal. “The building, caterer and band were already set. Then Keith mentioned the new Nevada County Law Enforcement and Fire Protection council was looking for a fundraiser.”

“We asked Bill (Drown) if the council would like to take over the Red Light Ball,” said Keith Royal. “We wanted it to continue because it was a great event and great for the community.”

“Then it was just a matter of making the event the council’s event,” said Susan Drown, Bill’s wife of 40 years who humbly downplays her role organizing the ball during those early years. “It boils down to me supporting Bill’s passion. It’s been his family legacy to support law enforcement, schools, hospitals, and such. I’m the one behind the scenes making sure the paperwork is done and allowing Bill to do what he does best.”

The Red Light Ball, to be held Saturday at the Alta Sierra Country Club, has been the council’s primary fundraiser the past 20 years.

Other council fundraisers include an annual raffle for a week’s vacation in Maui. The drawing will be held March 28 live on KNCO-AM radio. The council also hosts the “Nevada County Heroes Co-ed Softball Tournament.” The fourth annual tournament is scheduled May 4.

The council meets monthly on the second Thursday of each month. An associate membership costs $50 annually, which includes an invitation to the yearly State of the County meeting in November at which law enforcement and fire protection agency leaders make detailed presentations.

“We have very hard-working members and we have a very generous county,” said Nevada County Law Enforcement and Fire Protection Council President Anthony Halby. “Those two combined will serve us in the future as they have in the past.”

Lorraine Jewett is a freelance writer who lives in Nevada County. She can be reached at

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