Hail To The Chief

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.

Westport Fire Department chief Andrew Kingsbury, in his office. On the left -- above the windows facing the Post Road -- are souvenir fire helmets.

Westport Fire Department chief Andrew Kingsbury, in his office. On the left — above the windows facing the Post Road — are souvenir fire helmets.

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.

One small issue during Superstorm Sandy, on North Avenue.

One small issue during Superstorm Sandy, on North Avenue. Downed wires are always a danger for the fire department.

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.

Firefighters from several towns battled to save the Saugatuck Congregational Church.

Firefighters from several towns battled to save the Saugatuck Congregational Church.

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.

Hurricane Irene flooded downtown Westport, in August 2011.

Hurricane Irene flooded downtown Westport, in August 2011.

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.

fire-departmentDuring 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.”

A binder on Chief Kingsbury's shelves holds a map of all Westport homes over 6,000 square feet. And there are a ton.

A binder on Chief Kingsbury’s shelves holds a map of all Westport homes over 6,000 square feet. And there are a ton.

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.

The Saugatuck firehouse -- one small part of Westport's superb Fire Department.

The Saugatuck firehouse — one small part of Westport’s superb Fire Department.

6 responses to “Hail To The Chief

  1. Beth Orlan Berkowitz

    It should always be noted that these men (& women) whether paid or volunteer (along with EMS and police departments) run in TOWARDS the emergencies, while the rest of us are running AWAY from dangers!

    He has accomplished and witnessed a lot during his long career helping Westport and its residents and visitors! He has done a great job and has groomed some great people to follow.

    I thank you and the department of Heroes that you have groomed and left to protect all of us!

    Thank you Chief Kingsbury and good luck to Chief Yost as well as the rest of our emergency services!

  2. Michael Calise

    Great article Dan,
    Our fire department and it’s men and women who serve often without regard for their own personal safety deserve the full appreciation of all Westporters

  3. Chief Kingsbury and his team (especially Michele and Amy) helped my wife and I obtain a grant to lift our home which was flooded both during Hurricane Irene and Sandy (one of the roles that the Fire Department doesn’t get enough credit for; working with FEMA through emergency situations). I can’t tell you how diligent, patient, and caring they all have been throughout this lengthy process. This town is losing a great man when Chief Kingsbury leaves, but I know we are all so grateful to him for his tireless efforts. All the best Chief!!

    • Thank you Tony for the kudos! We will all miss Chief Kingsbury. He taught me so much about the elevation process. In his last weeks here, he spent several hours corresponding with FEMA about the remaining elevations and properties.

  4. Audrey Doniger

    I love the Westport fire partment..no matter how big,like when hurricane Gloria uprooted a gigantic tree that fell on my house and virtually split it in half (it was 4 months later that it I could live in it) or small ,like checking my indoor fire and Co2 alarms and helping me get a bird out of the house…always pleasant ,always immediate response always cheerful…what can I say?..except I love them..

  5. Michael Don Sullivan

    Excellent read there! I don’t know the Chief,but always appreciated the professionalism of WPD!