Retired Hinsdale, Ill. Fire Chief Patrick Kenny was preparing to travel to Orlando, Fla. for the Fire Department Safety Officers Association annual safety conference when he got word that Deputy Chief Mark Johnson had collapsed and died while training in the department’s fitness room on Sept. 20.
Kenny said that following Johnson’s death he considered not attending the conference, but decided it’s what where his friend would have wanted him to be.
"I thought ‘If there is anyplace you should have gone, this is it,’ " he said last week before he was set to speak at the conference.
Kenny’s son died of a drug overdose in June of 2006 while he was still fire chief of Hinsdale. He now speaks at departments and conferences across the country to promote mental health issues.
Kenny worked with Johnson for more than 22 years and during their time working together they became very close friends.
In 2003, Johnson became the department’s first full-time training and safety officer.
He was promoted by Kenny to lieutenant in 2003 and was given the extra responsibility. Kenny joked that he told Johnson he had "good and bad news" because he knew it would be different for the long-time firefighter to no longer be part of a shift.
"It took him about a week to get into it but when he did he really kicked butt."
It had been more than 60 years since Hinsdale had experienced a line of duty death, something that was hard for a lot of firefighters to cope with.
"As usual, the emotions run the gambit. They were just trying to get their hands around it," he said. "Chief Kelly did an outstanding job at getting (a counselor) there. You have to do it right away. It may not hit everyone right away but some people will be willing to talk."
Fire Chief Mike Kelly — head of the department since Kenny retired in 2008 and a member for 23 years — had a grief counselor at the station just a few hours following Johnson’s death.
"I’ve pretty much worked with (Johnson) my whole career. He was just a great guy to have around the firehouse," he said. "We’re very fortunate that we have a Level 2 trauma center right by us and have a good relationship with the people there," he said.
Chaplain Vicky Syren, who has a background in the fire service as a chaplain, was able to relate to the firefighters in ways other counselors might not have been able to, Kelly said.
"She kind of fell into our laps," he said. "If anyone was going to be available I wanted it to be someone that the guys would see as legitimate. They don’t open up easily and usually don’t open up to people outside the department.
"She knows firefighters and the environment we work in. She came in that evening and kind of a shoulder to lean on. I really appreciate the time she spent with us."
The Northern Illinois Critical Stress Team, which also has members with a background in the fire service, helped provide the department with a stress debriefing.
"Nothing was forced. If we want to share, we could."
Following the initial session with Syren, he relieved the current crew from their duties and brought in the next shift.
"A lot of them didn’t want to leave. They felt comfort in the station," he said. "Over that next week we got a lot of support and we were all kept very busy. (Planning Mark’s services) kept us occupied. As we move forward it may be more difficult.
"We have to have an awareness and keep in mind of thing that might come up."
Kenny said the main thing that helped him cope with the loss was being allowed to help the department as a retired member.
"One thing that helped me — being a retired chief with the department — is that Chief Kelly allowed me to help," he said. "Being allowed to be involved was very powerful to me."
Kelly said he was grateful for the former chief’s help and support.
"Pat still is a huge part of our department," he said. "We tried to involve all of our members — our retired members too. We like to think that our department isn’t just our actives."
Kenny spoke to Johnson’s wife just days after his death and she said her son was having a tough time with it. He gave her the name of a counselor and he said that after he went she said it really helped him.
"I think you need to leave a process in place for the future," he said. "For some people, it won’t be they make a connection to his death. It could be six months down the line, it could be a year," he said. "You have to make it acceptable that it’s OK to cope with it."