Front-Line Heroes: Professor and Teaneck Battalion Chief Paul Kearns ’01 Educating for Emergency Response

Front-Line Heroes: Professor and Teaneck Battalion Chief Paul Kearns ’01 Educating for Emergency Response

Front-Line Heroes: Professor and Teaneck Battalion Chief Paul Kearns ’01 Educating for Emergency Response

New York City is at the epicenter of the Covid-19 health crisis, and as a New York City-based College that educates students committed to public service, our alumni, students, faculty, and staff are working on the front lines to keep our communities safe. Our “Front-Line Heroes” article series serves as a testament to the valiant efforts of our first responders and essential workers. As a community we thank them for their service, dedication, and personal sacrifice.

We spoke with alumnus Paul Kearns ’01, Adjunct Professor of Security, Fire, and Emergency Management, and Battalion Chief for the Teaneck Fire Department to learn more about his experience training and educating firefighters and John Jay students on emergency preparedness during the Covid-19 health crisis.

When did you first start to see and understand that this virus was going to have the impact that it has?
Probably towards the end of January, maybe the beginning of February. We began hearing reports about this virus that was affecting people in China, and the numbers just didn’t make sense. I had previously led the pandemic efforts in the Teaneck, New Jersey Fire Department for the Ebola crisis, so I started to review what we had done before. Then I compared that to what was known at the time about the coronavirus. I remember speaking to my bosses and telling them that we needed to plan for the virus. We had the equipment to prepare, we just needed to come up with a list of training topics and train our firefighters.

“We began hearing reports about this virus that was affecting people in China, and the numbers just didn’t make sense.” —Paul Kearns

What were some of those topics?
At John Jay, I am part of The Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies (RaCERS) and I ended up bringing in some of the topics that I used in my classes and through RaCERS to the department. We utilized a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) class—the Pandemic Preparedness course—that all of our chief officers took in February. We also had all the firefighters take the state and federal mandated fire services courses, like the Bloodborne Pathogens, Exposure Control, Hazardous Communication, Confined Space and Respiratory Protections courses, and then you have optional courses which are a bit more mission specific.

We started with conducting the Bloodborne Pathogens and Exposure Control trainings and then we did the Respiratory Protection training, which we had the equipment for because of previous partnerships. In the past we had collaborated with the FDNY—through connections and contacts from John Jay friends and alumni—and they supported our efforts to train our department. Due to these past trainings, we had a foundation to further our efforts during this pandemic while following the protocols of using N95 masks and a Level-B suit that protects the member and can be decontaminated to use again.

“There’s been this shift where everyone’s required to wear a respiratory mask and maintain social distance and it’s our mission to follow these guidelines.” —Paul Kearns

Now that the virus is acutely affecting our communities, and you’re directly on the front line, what does a typical day look like for you?
Our typical day now is very different from what it was on January 1. As soon as we come into the building, we have our temperatures taken and we are handed a mask to wear before we can proceed through the building. There’s been this shift where everyone’s required to wear a respiratory mask and maintain social distance and it’s our mission to follow these guidelines. Our goal is to limit exposure and make sure the members of the department aren’t exposed to the virus, and that the community we serve isn’t put in harm’s way. We’ve already had it happen where members have gotten sick midway through the tour and had to put them in quarantine where they remained for several weeks. First and foremost, is the concern for the member and their family and how they are being impacted by it, and then you worry about everybody else as far as the station is concerned. You start doing contact tracing: Who was working with them during that tour? Who worked with them the previous tour? Who did they relieve? Was our protocol in place at the time? Fortunately, when one of our members got sick, it only affected them and the crew that was working that day, and didn't extend out to the members that they relieved or those who relieved them the next day.

“Our responses have changed, but the mission of the department has remained the same: firefighting, fire suppression and emergency response.” —Paul Kearns

What is it currently like out in the field?
Our responses have changed, but the mission of the department has remained the same: firefighting, fire suppression and emergency response. But for our members, we are limiting exposure. Members of the department are wearing their respiratory protections, and when we are responding to fires, we are trying to relieve companies as soon as possible. People from the community always want to come out to see what is happening and talk to us, but it becomes a point of contact that we have to be concerned about and limit. And it’s not a matter of not wanting to chat with the neighbors, we love to get to know everyone in the community, but with over 700 confirmed cases in the township, we have to focus on our mission and limit our exposure.

“We love to get to know everyone in the community, but with over 700 confirmed cases in the township, we have to focus on our mission and limit our exposure.” —Paul Kearns

You’ve had many front-line workers in your classes. What have you taught them about handling a crisis like this?
John Jay has truly been at the forefront for educating police officers, firefighters, and practitioners of emergency management, and I consider myself fortunate to work closely with these courageous individuals. One of the courses that I teach is Intro to Risk Management. We’ve been able to use the mock Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at the College and provide students with the ability to run an incident on a larger scale. Students represent the New York City Police Department (NYPD), New York City Fire Department (FDNY), FDNY Emergency Medical Services (EMS), hospitals, New York City Department of Transportation (DOT), New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY), and public utilities to identify an emergency, then plan a response. This has been done two semesters, every year, for the last six years, and this semester was actually the first time that we were unable to do this simulation. It's something that I'm very pleased with and it's always the highlight of my semester.

“John Jay has truly been at the forefront for educating police officers, firefighters, and practitioners of emergency management, and I consider myself fortunate to work closely with these courageous individuals.”— Paul Kearns

How has this global health crisis impacted you on a personal level?
The pandemic has definitely impacted me and my family. In 2012, I was badly injured in a fire and broke my back. I was hospitalized for a couple of months followed by time at a rehab center. Through this injury and others that I have had, my family was able to be by my side and I was able to recover. This time, when I was exposed to the virus at the beginning of March, I had to leave my family and quarantine myself in another location. Fortunately, I have an amazing wife, Colleen, and two great kids, Aedan and Mairead, who are 17 and 15 respectively. My wife is the daughter of a NYPD Officer, so she knows how to handle these situations and remain strong for the family, but I do see the stress. I go to work and before leaving I have to make sure to shower and then I come home. But every time you leave the house you have to be cautious. Even at the department, the steps that we are taking and the protocols that we have implemented, affects the public as much as it does our families, so it makes it even more important for us to be careful and take extra precautions.

“The steps that we are taking and the protocols that we have implemented, affects the public as much as it does our families, so it makes it even more important for us to be careful and take extra precautions.” —Paul Kearns

Is there any moment that hit you particularly hard? Why did that moment strike such a powerful chord with you?
When I was told I was exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus. I attended this meeting and was sitting next to an individual for over an hour who was symptomatic. In February, when everything about the virus was first coming out, my wife and I spoke about what we would do in the event that either of us got sick, and here I was at the beginning of March having to call her and tell her that something bad had happened at work. For me, it becomes emotionally draining, but my wife stepped up to the plate. When I had to quarantine, she prepared a backpack and groceries and put together everything I needed. She would call me every day and made sure that the kids would call me, so I wasn’t alone. It was hard for me to be away from my family, but because of the support of my wife, I was able to do it.

“My hope is that we continue to learn from mistakes, ask questions and utilize this experience to better prepare for the future.”— Paul Kearns

Have there been any acts of kindness, moments of levity, encouragement or hope that you’d like to share?
The firehouse has changed dramatically as far as social distancing and not having the communal meal where we can physically sit down and be close with each other. But there is still a meal being prepared and we are all eating at the same time, so the family unit is still there, which is great because the members of the department are phenomenal and supportive of each other. The people of the township have also been incredibly supportive; the other day somebody dropped off sandwiches for us. People have a vested interest in keeping themselves safe and keeping us safe and it’s nice that they are doing that. And there was a day in my neighborhood where everyone was on their front lawns talking to each other from more than six feet away. It was funny, but it was a moment for us to feel a sense of normalcy and community connection.

Thinking forward, is there anything that you hope our City, our country, or even the world will do to prevent a situation like this from happening or help handle it better?
We need to learn from the past, from what’s happening now, and we have to prepare. Planning is an important part of emergency management, because it’s not just about the response. There is a recovery phase, a mitigation phase, and there’s a response phase. We have to address those and get an independent commission of experts, practitioners, and theoretical experts, so we can see where we are and where we have to be in the future. It’s an after action that requires an analysis and critique and some people aren’t going to be happy with it, but it needs to be done. If we look at what happened with September 11, the Commission made a lot of recommendations that 20 years later are not being followed. We can’t have this happen again. My hope is that we continue to learn from mistakes, ask questions, and utilize this experience to better prepare for the future.

“We work very closely with law enforcement, and seeing fellow first responders get sick or die, it becomes real. These are our family members and these are our friends.” —Paul Kearns

Is there anything else that you want to share about your experience?
Mental health is incredibly important right now, especially for the front-line workers. I’m most familiar with those in my peer groups like police officers, firefighters, and EMS. The stressors that they are operating under don’t end when their shift ends. They go to the supermarket and they’re dealing with it; they go home and they’re dealing with it; they go for a walk in the neighborhood and they’re dealing with it. In the past, when you saw funerals for first responders with all the people attending, part of what that service did was give support and closure to the families, while also providing support to the members of the department. But right now, that’s not happening. It’s become a situation where only one person can go to the funeral and it’s hard on the families and on the department. We work very closely with law enforcement, and seeing fellow first responders get sick or die, it becomes real. These are our family members and our friends and not being able to have this ceremonial goodbye does take a toll. But I’m hopeful that things will get better soon.