Nate Gibbons is The Man.
He’s Westport’s newest — and unlikeliest — folk hero.
Who would have thought a fire inspector, giving daily post-hurricane briefings on a high school radio station, would develop such a cult following?
Westporters listened in — to loop after endless loop — just to hear his reassuring voice.
They learned important information (like generator safety) along with trivia (the difference between flotsam and jetsam*).
No one wants another natural disaster. But when it comes, Nate Gibbons’ soothing, articulate voice — packing tons of news and practical ideas into every sentence, leavened with just enough light humor to make life bearable — will be the first place Westport turns.
Here is how remarkable Nate Gibbons is: His work as Westport Fire Department public information officer — sitting in on Emergency Operations Center meetings, then conveying everything discussed by professionals to stressed-out Westporters in clear, easy-to-understand paragraphs — is not his only job.
As a fire inspector, he’s got to worry about life-and-death issues during crises. When Hurricane Sandy sent water roaring down Main Street, for instance, he knew what was happening to the electrical systems lying just below the grates. He feared massive fires, like the ones that destroyed parts of Queens. Nate pushed to cut power downtown, even before the winds picked up.
Those decisions sound like the result of a lifetime spent in the Fire Department.
Which Nate has not done.
In high school, he was a radio DJ. After graduating from Yale University — as a Branford College “Scholar of the House” — he worked in television. He built Cablevision’s 1st studio, in the basement of 265 Post Road West.
Nate directed cable TV shows, and had his own production company.
But he was always interested in the fire department. In the 1980s — while serving as a volunteer — he watched as another TV company produced an atrocious training video here in town.
Nate knew he could do it better. When he won the contract for the next video, he did. On that shoot, a firefighter told him he should join the department.
In 1995, he did.
It was a great homecoming. As a kid in Westport — growing up not far from the Green’s Farms fire station — he’d had a great time riding along as trucks responded to brush fires. (“You can’t do that today,” he says matter-of-factly.)
Though Nate has been the Westport Fire Department’s voice in previous disasters, they were blips on the weather radar compared to Sandy.
For nearly a week — starting the night of the hurricane — he went on WWPT-FM. In segments as brief as 3 minutes, and as long as 25, he talked about disaster preparedness and recovery. And he did it from every angle imaginable.
There are 3 types of information, Nate explains.
One is updates: road closings, power outages, shelter hours, etc.
Another is closings and openings — of roads, schools, that sort of thing.
The 3rd is safety. “That’s second nature to me as an inspector. But it’s not necessarily known to everyone,” Nate says. Topics include how to use a generator, what to do when the power comes back on, and the importance of looking up for falling debris.
“I don’t joke about carbon monoxide,” Nate notes. “But I will say, ‘If you don’t know what a flue is, you shouldn’t have a fire in your fireplace.’”
Westport is filled with New Yorkers (and others) “who never owned a home before. People don’t necessarily know how to operate their homes. There’s no user’s manual.”
So he provides one.
He reads from a script. (Don’t ask where he finds the time to write one.) It’s vetted by Fire Chief Andrew Kingsbury and a deputy. First Selectman Gordon Joseloff — a former journalist — also provides good advice.
Nate is filled with praise for Kinsbury, and the entire 65-person Westport Fire Department. “Officers slept at the EOC. Firefighters were on for 4 or 5 days straight.”
Nate was lucky. He lives in town. He went home for an hour or two, to check on his own house.
But then it was back to the fire station, and the transmitter used to communicate via 90.3 FM.
Now, his star turn over, Nate is back to his regular work. There’s a backlog of inspections to be done.
He’s also working on an after-action report, so the Westport Fire Department can be ready for the next disaster.
In his calm, steady — but authoritative voice — Nate says, “You know it’s going to come.”
* FUN NATE GIBBONS FACT: Flotsam is floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo. Jetsam is part of a ship, its equipment or its cargo that is purposefully cast overboard (“jettisoned”) to lighten the load in time of distress.