Past experiences help with current response
DJ Simmons, Houston Chronicle with permission
WESTPORT (Houston Chronicle) – Years of fighting wildfires has helped the Westport Fire Department to provide quick responses in a town once considered the epicenter of COVID-19 in the state, its officials said.
Deputy Fire Chief Mike Kronick said he’s been fighting wildfires since 2001 and has been on 13 national and international wildfire assignments throughout the western United States and into Quebec.
“I remember watching the fires of Yellowstone on the nightly news in ‘88,” said Kronick, who admitted he’s always been interested in fighting wildfires but wasn’t able to do so until he joined Westport Fire. “I was in high school at the time and it was something I was very interested in doing.”
The link between wildfires and the pandemic has to do with incident management, he said. Kronick said a highly detailed system used to combat wildfires since the ‘70s presented a pattern for how to build a system to manage the impossible at a moment’s notice.
“How to put the wildfire out is not the tool that’s making it easier for the chief and I to do our job,” he said. “It’s the machine of getting hundred if not thousands of people mobilized around the country, putting them in a remote location, supporting them with logistics and getting them highly organized in order to fight a fire.”
Westport Fire Chief Robert Yost said Kronick got him involved in combating wildfires years before the pandemic arose. While taking an operations class for hazards in 2014, he said he noticed a wildfire committee’s grasp of incident management.
“His suggestion was if you really want to learn it, you have to be experienced and really go out there,” Yost recalled.
Yost joined Kronick for his first wildfire assignment in 2016.
When news of several attendees of a private party in town testing positive for the coronavirus broke, Yost said he immediately put his organization experience to work.
“Mike and I both suggested to the first selectman that we need to start up an incident management team and deal with this just like we would do for a wildfire, which is a long-sustained, multi-operational, sometimes no-end-in-sight operation,” he said.
The team was established with town officials and first responders collaborating to manage a pandemic whose long-lasting impact remains unclear.
“This isn’t a house fire that we’re going to put out in a few hours,” Yost said. “This is going to be a long, drawn-out battle and we have to prepare for what is essentially going to be a logistic war for getting the supplies and personnel to deal with this.”
Kronick said in the past 20 years, his department has prepared four or five times for what was expected to be similar crises. Because of the preparation, the fire department did not face shortages of supplies when the pandemic hit, he said.
“Over the last 20 years, we’ve always maintained a significant amount of equipment on hand just in case,” Kronick said.
Similar to when any disaster unwinds, he said local government agencies could face new challenges including a lack of funding that could make it difficult to respond.
“There’s been a lot of career-type events which are going to change the way we do business and they do and it ends up being another thing we have to do on a regular basis,” Kronick said, “but we don’t get the support financially or manpower wise to deal with it in years to come.”
For now, Kronick said, a collaborative effort across town has helped to slow the pandemic’s impact.
“By getting everybody to work on the same page, we’ve been able to make a difference,” he said.