A2 COVID-19: Fire Chief Kennedy

Apr 29, 2020 | A2 COVID-19

Ann Arbor City Fire Chief Mike Kennedy spoke to me from his office but explained that he also works from home during this pandemic. Chief Kennedy described how differently his department is functioning with added precautions to protect both the public and his own team. He is grateful for all that we can do as a community to stay home and stay safe – in this way we lower the number of “normal” calls for his department, which helps them cope with the COVID-19 crisis.

This is part of a series of interviews with Ann Arbor residents, talking about personal experiences adjusting to (and adapting during) the COVID-19 crisis. This interview was conducted remotely via the ZOOM application. I appear in this video as “Mrs. Nelson” – we talked over the ZOOM account that I use primarily with my preschool class. Interviewed April 28, 2020

Today, I’m talking to Fire Chief Mike Kennedy, our City of Ann Arbor’s Fire Chief. Thank you for talking to me!

Of course. Thank you for the invitation.

So, I’m going to ask you the same question that I’ve been asking everybody, which is: what adjustments, what kind of changes have you had to make in your lifestyle, in your habits during this pandemic 

Our whole role has been turned pretty upside down. Certainly on the personal side and that’s what’s challenging with this. Normally, we’re in the position of helping other folks and not necessarily having to worry about ourselves, but this has thrown that: dealing with close family members that are susceptible and that to me has been a personal challenge with this. It’s not only helping the citizens of the city — which normally is our focus — but, like, I can’t help if I get sick and if my wife gets sick or one of my parents. So it’s been this weird kind of role reversal. Not only are we the ones helping but we’re also having to kind of take care of ourselves at the same time, too. 

On the fire department side, there’s been dramatic upheaval to what we normally do and from the city leadership side, dramatic upheaval, as well, in terms of us trying to manage city emergencies in a way that none of us really fathomed. I mean, we had done kind of some, what could be called like “war gaming” (kind of tabletops) of how we’d handle a flood if a dam broke in the city or how we would handle straight-line wind damage. All those have always involved all of us being in a room together sorting this stuff out. We never really… this was something that we didn’t account for and so a lot of this has been having to manage the crisis as well as normal city operations at the same time. 

Not in an effort to get political, but the lack of federal guidance has been very disappointing. That has really handcuffed us at a local level. If you would have asked me [about] pandemic planning in 2019, I would have said, oh yeah, the CDC has these national stockpiles and we would get guidance from them and it would be very clear-cut direction from the federal government. They were just always the ones that we were taught and expected to take the lead with this and it hasn’t. Obviously there’s some leadership within…our president. Again, not to try to get too political but to say that that has had a local effect. I don’t say that lightly. That has been a challenge to all of us.

In your personal life, what precautions are you taking, in the day-to-day activities where you have to go out in public places and do things like get groceries? I’ve asked people this question — people who aren’t in jobs like yours, who aren’t otherwise going out in the public— but I’m just curious if your household has any particular routines around bringing things into the house or going into public places to shop?

So, we’ve really been trying to walk the walk and talk the talk in terms of the guidance. On a personal level, really been doing the social distancing and trying to work from home when we can. I’m at the station today and there’s been a lot of kind of in and out, but one of the worst things I could have done was infect other staff. What really drove that home for myself is when the Detroit Police Chief came down with COVID about a month ago and one of his senior staff members sadly died from it. The last thing I wanted to do as the department head is be the vector to take out the department. 

Normally with the fire department it’s a very close-knit team environment so this has gone against the whole fabric of our entire organization: being away from each other and being apart. Literally everything we do is in a team and so this has just been an upheaval of that so it’s been the struggle of wanting to be there for staff but also not wanting to… I just couldn’t have lived with myself if I got

sick and infected other people. 

So for our firefighters when we’re going and getting groceries we’ve actually put policies in place of them wearing the N95 mask and fortunately we are plenty stocked on that, them wearing gloves. Several of our local grocery stores have been really outstanding, opening up early for first responders so we could kind of get in there, get in and out and have reduced exposure from the public. We really appreciate Meijer and Kroger have really stepped up with that and that’s been appreciated.

Some of the people that I’ve talked to are really cooped up, they don’t have a job where they have to go out frequently.


But what you’re describing to me is a huge shift in your job where you’re not with your colleagues as much and your teams are not as together. So I guess I can ask you a similar question to what I ask others which is: how are you overcoming this limitation of not being able to be together with people or perhaps feeling more isolated? Are there any strategies? 

So I guess fortunately or unfortunately, these last six weeks have been some of the busiest of my entire career through technology and phone calls. I think my wife probably wishes I wasn’t working from home as much as I am. It’s 7:00 a.m. to usually 9 o’clock at night (if not later) that it’s just been constant calls and media briefings and one thing after another. I guess I’m somewhat fortunate that this distancing has not been a factor for me.

Honestly, it’s been exhausting. Granted, with police and fire we never really get a day off but at least for myself as the fire chief — unless it’s a pretty significant event— on the weekends, I’m able to disconnect. But with this, the speed of what this has moved in the second and third effect problems that we’ve had, from logistics and supplies… we’ve had a staff member getting affected and families of staff members. It just hasn’t stopped. 

The pace of that has… I know it’s kind of taken a toll on me personally. I know for several of our staff it has because normally we get a break and we just… we haven’t caught a break with this yet. We’ve really been going nonstop since early March.

How has the nature of your work changed since the pandemic started?

We’ve had to reassign a lot of staff. We’ve also had to become much more experts with supply chain. We admittedly fell into, I think, a trend (along with everyone else) — kind of what I call the Amazon phenomenon — where I can click and it’s there the next day. Some of our just even simple stuff (such as cleaning supplies), we weren’t anticipating that we would have shortages of getting things like toilet paper or disinfectant. All of our vendors, we could call them and literally the next day stuff would be there. 

So from a storage perspective and budget perspective that became very easy — for a decade plus, even more than that, that was our routine. So it’s forced us to have to deal with logistics and reuse. Especially on the cleaning side, focus on areas that we’ve never had to focus on before.

What would you say to people who are feeling overly restricted by the guidelines that have been recommended to us? We saw demonstration in Lansing where people are holding up signs… you know, people are sick of it. My sense of our town is that we are doing a reasonable job of maintaining the recommendations, the advice that we’ve been given, but what would you say to people who are not feeling so good about it? 

I understand it. I have a lot of frustration because I personally know someone that’s died from COVID. These restrictions have worked. I mean, it’s difficult for personal feelings not to bleed into a professional role and especially in this scenario. I understand people are frustrated and I understand people feel that some civil liberties are being taken away but it’s not being done lightly or without significant reflection and understanding of what this means. It is working. Where we were at a month ago was dramatically different from where we’re at now. But yeah, I understand. I appreciate the frustration but this is truly one where we have to look at the greater good. No one is saying that it’s going to be like this forever, we just have to go through a rough spot to get to a better area. 

Well, those are actually all of my questions so the only thing left to say is do you have anything to add anything else that you would want to say? 

We just really appreciate the support. Ann Arbor’s always been a great community for first responders and we’ve really received a lot of reach out and we appreciate that. By people staying in, it has actually reduced our call volume. One of the things with these COVID calls is: a normal medical emergency might take us 10-15 minutes, now with the gear that we have to use, the disinfecting we have to use, that normal call that would take 10 or 15 minutes for us is now an hour plus, just with all the protocols and procedures that we have to do. 

So by people staying in, we have less car accidents, we have less people having trauma or other emergencies that would happen in the day to day life. So the reduction in the normal — what I would call our normal incidents — has helped us to focus on the COVID stuff. That has made a difference here in Ann Arbor and we appreciate those efforts because it has helped us dramatically. 

Well, I want to say as a resident that I’m really grateful for our first responders and my impression of how the city has responded to this pandemic is that everybody’s come together. I’m a part-time employee of the city and all of you full-time employees of the city are really stepping up and I’m really grateful! 

Yeah, we’ve got a great team. We’re very very fortunate in that regard. 

Well I thank you for talking to me!

Okay, well thank you and appreciate the invite and good luck in your video series.

Thank you so much! 

Okay, have a good evening.