When the pandemic first hit Suffolk County in March and the scramble began to secure personal protective equipment, the Wading River Fire District faced the same challenges as so many other departments and health care facilities.
Seemingly overnight, PPE became the most sought after items on the frontlines against COVID-19, a new and unknown virus.
Wading River Chief Branden Heller said the fire department typically stocks some PPE, such as N-95 masks, that rescue workers can use when needed on certain calls. But never before had they suddenly needed PPE on every single call. The department was left “scrambling” to find suitable PPE as they were exposed to something “totally unfamiliar,” said Michael Harrigan, the fire district’s vice chairman.
Fire commissioner Kevin McQueeney reached out to a connection at Covanta, a waste management company. He contacted Ken Hinsch, facilities manager for Covanta Huntington, and outlined the department’s situation.
Mr. Hinsch said their business requires the use of PPE, so they happened to have a stock of supplies.
“We use that on a routine basis,” he said, noting that while they still needed supplies for themselves, it was more important to get them into the hands of first responders.
The timing worked out well because the PPE supplies for Covanta are most crucial during their boiler shutdown procedures. Those were delayed due to the pandemic, Mr. Hinsch said.
They set aside the minimum supplies of what they would need and donated the rest to the Wading River Fire District. He estimated it was between $5,000 and $6,000 worth of supplies, including Tyvek suits and N-95 masks.
The donation was able to get the department “past that initial onslaught, which was a killer,” he said.
Mr. Hinsch was honored during a ceremony at the fire department Monday morning, receiving proclamations from Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar on behalf of the town board, as well as from Legislator Sarah Anker and Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner.
Mr. Heller said when the pandemic began, the department conducted a full inventory to tally the PPE supplies on hand.
“We knew right from the beginning this would be a long-haul event,” he said.
They would report their inventory to Suffolk County Fire Rescue and Emergency Services, which was tasked with distributing supplies to the more than 100 departments across the county.
The donation from Covanta allowed the department to weather the initial storm so first responders wouldn’t potentially be going on calls without the PPE, which are typically one-time use.
Mr. Hinsch, who has worked for Covanta for 28 years, said it was “overwhelming” to be honored for the donation.
“I’m a veteran myself, so reaching out and helping out is an important part of my core values,” he said.
Ms. Aguiar said the response by Mr. Hinsch allowed the department to remain online.
“Emergencies can bring out the heroes among us,” she said.