Andrew Kingsbury took over as chief of the Westport Fire Department in May 2011. Among his many responsibilities: director of emergency management for the town.
At the end of August, Hurricane Irene struck. Two months later, an early snowstorm created havoc.
Just before Thanksgiving, Saugatuck Congregational Church caught fire. Only a heroic effort saved the historic structure from burning to the ground.
Kingsbury’s first months on the job were — literally — a trial by fire.
In the years to come he faced Superstorm Sandy, and several mammoth snowstorms.
Kingsbury managed them all professionally, efficiently and compassionately. And that was in addition to all his other tasks: Handling fires in homes and businesses everywhere in town. Responding to car fires and accidents on I-95 and the Merritt. Overseeing building inspections, compliance issues, safety campaigns in schools and elsewhere. Leading investigations. Developing budgets.
And, oh yeah, serving as headquarters for the Secret Service when President Obama was in the area.
Kingsbury’s last official day is tomorrow. He retires after 30 years with the Westport Fire Department — his only job since being offered a position here one semester shy of college graduation.
New chief Rob Yost — previously an assistant, who was sworn in on Friday — inherits a department in excellent shape. That’s what Kingsbury’s predecessor Chris Ackley did for him, and the retiring chief is determined to continue that tradition.
Last week, Kingsbury sat in his sunny office at fire headquarters, overlooking the Post Road, and reflected on his 3 decades here.
He’d been a volunteer firefighter in his native Trumbull. After starting in Westport on July 1, 1986, he spent 17 years on the line. He was promoted to lieutenant in 2003, and assistant fire chief 2 years later.
Kingsbury is proud of his accomplishments. In the aftermath of each storm or other weather-related event, there is a ton of paperwork. “We work hard to get the town — and individuals — reimbursed,” he says, citing one part of his job that few folks ever see.
During Sandy, Kingsbury spent 28 straight days at work. Much of that time was stressful. Some of it was simply “answering phones, reassuring people.”
It’s not in his job description, but Kingsbury goes to every house fire. He’s honored whenever someone calls or emails to thank his department after a call.
Even a dryer fire can be a devastating experience, he knows. His firefighters pay attention to little details — covering up valuables or putting family photos in a drawer, so they won’t be damaged by water from hoses — and when Westporters acknowledge those acts, it’s gratifying.
But the Saugatuck Church fire stands out.
“I knew the history,” Kingsbury says. “I didn’t want to be the new chief who lost the place where Westport was born.”
Usually, he says, firefighters know within half an hour if a structure can be saved. That November night, they battled for hours without knowing the outcome.
Crews from Norwalk, Wilton, Fairfield and Weston helped out. In the middle of the blaze, Kingsbury called retired fire marshal Fred Baker. He’d worked with the church when they put in firewalls a few years earlier.
Baker told Kingsbury what he knew about the fire stops, and construction materials. As a result, a Fairfield ladder was hoisted at exactly the right point above the sanctuary. There was major damage, but the building stood.
Of course, Kingsbury won’t miss budget battles. “I understand that each town board has a job to do,” he says. “They don’t always understand what we do, but they want to be educated. So every year we explain about our personnel and our equipment. We know it’s expensive.”
There is no alternative. Westport is not like many other suburbs. Its population increases by 27 percent every workday, Kingsbury says, as employees of hedge funds, businesses and stores — along with shoppers — pour in. “That’s a lot of people in motion every day,” he notes.
In addition, a river runs through town — and often floods. So does Long Island Sound.
Metro-North — the busiest commuter line in the US — passes through Westport. And I-95 and the Merritt are accident magnets. The Fire Department answers 125 calls a year on those 2 highways alone.
Some of those emergencies include cutting people out of vehicles. “Cars are much safer today,” Kingsbury says. “But extrications are tougher. Cars used to be like tin cans. Now there are so many new metals and plastics. We’re constantly educating ourselves in that area.”
The town has more miles of private roads than public roads, the chief notes. Most date from the 1800s. They’re laid out like cow paths, and few conform to modern codes.
“We build our trucks as small and narrow as we can,” Kingsbury says. And after they take care of a call, they have to leave. “We’ve become very good backer-uppers,” he laughs.
During his 30 years in Westport, equipment has gotten much better. Breathing apparatuses are lighter; technology and radio systems are vastly improved, and thermal imaging cameras allow firefighters to see right through smoke.
As chief, Kingsbury has worked to standardize policies and procedures with neighboring departments. They assist each other often, and need to be able to communicate and work seamlessly.
Another Fire Department job that few people ever see are walk-throughs during construction. For the past 2 years, his crew has been in and out of the new Bedford Square.
“We need to see what’s being built,” Kingsbury explains. “If we know what’s wood, what’s metal, we’ll know how to handle any emergency.”
And, he adds, “When that crane showed up, we were there. If anything happened, we’d be the ones to get the guy out.”
But one of the biggest challenges the Westport Fire Department faces is large homes. Any call in a house larger than 6,000 square feet requires more manpower than usual. And, Kingsbury says, big houses have a lot of furniture. “These days it’s all foam rubber and plastics. That stuff burns fast.”
He looks at a wall filled with mementos of his 3-decade career. It includes a signed photo with President Obama, thanking him for his help during a presidential visit.
“We protected Sherwood Island when he flew in here,” Kingsbury says. “And the Secret Service was headquartered here. All their vehicles were in the bays — and their guns.”
But Westporters went about their business, without a clue. “Our lips were sealed,” the chief says.
“I’ve enjoyed being here. It’s been a great experience,” Kingsbury concludes. “When I started, I never imagined the diversity of calls.”
There have been tens of thousands. Yet one stands out.
A while ago, firefighters rescued a 3-year-old from a terrible house fire.
Years later, the girl — by then 16 years old — came to a retirement ceremony for one of those men.
Kingsbury smiles when he tells that story. Then he goes back to work, making sure that the department he hands his successor is firing on all cylinders.