News Flash

Wright County News

Posted on: April 23, 2020

Local Fire Chiefs Caught By Surprise in Governor's Homemade Mask Initiative

During his daily press briefings, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz has made some bold statements about the expectations of Minnesota being a leader in the national fight against COVID-19. He has promoted aggressive timelines to get things done and sweeping initiatives that have changed the landscape of Minnesota over the last two months.

But, a decree made last Friday caught a lot of fire departments by surprise. At his April 17 briefing, Walz and Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan launched a statewide homemade mask drive for Minnesotans to donate in honor of those workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The initiative gave Minnesotans one week to make as many homemade masks as possible and designated 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, April 25 as the delivery date for the masks with drop-off locations with your local fire department.

There was only one problem with that. Nobody informed the fire chiefs in advance that they were going to be the boots on the ground in this effort.

Eric Bullen, the fire chief of the Albertville Fire Department, president of the Wright County Fire Chiefs Association and a region representative for the Minnesota Fire Chiefs Association is in the loop about as much as any fire chief in the state and, while given a brief forewarning, he was unaware of exactly what was coming when the directive came down.

“The first I heard of anything was an email I got on Wednesday or Thursday of last week telling us to pay attention to the governor’s press conference on Friday for big news coming,” Bullen said. “That was all we knew until Friday when he gave his press conference. We had no head’s up. We had no idea this drive was going to happen and that it was going to involve us.”

Monticello Fire Chief Mike Mossey echoed Bullen’s sentiment, saying many of the Wright County fire chiefs were caught off-guard that they would be in charge of mask collection.

“I had no idea this was coming,” Mossey said. “I gather that was the same reaction from a lot of the county chiefs. The Wright County Fire Chiefs Association put out an email saying, ‘Who is partaking in this?’ We were all kind of surprised by it. There was no planning or input on it – at least not locally. Maybe on a grand scale there was. I’m not opposed to it, but it’s kind of weird to volunteer us for it and we’re all like, ‘What?’”

How different fire departments – many of them volunteer departments – handle the method of collection will vary from one department to another. Each was put in the position of coming up with its own game plan.

Mossey said he had a couple of firefighters volunteer to man the drop-off location, but he was hesitant to put his crew out mingling with the public when there is still stay at home and social distancing orders in place. He said the likely option will be a bin placed at the entrance to the fire hall and collect the masks that way.

As part of the governor’s initiative, fire chiefs were told they can determine the best method to distribute the masks, which was yet another surprise that the chiefs hadn’t planned for.

“At this point, we’re not sure where the masks are going to go and who will be managing it,” Mossey said. “I’m sure we’ll figure something out because it is a good thing to get masks to those who need them, but we were pulled into this before any of us knew about it.”

Bullen said his department is fortunate in that it has a senior care facility in Albertville that is an ideal landing spots for masks brought to his station. He is encouraging people to do their part for the community because there is a need in town for them to be used.

“We’re fortunate here in that we have the Guardian Angels Engel Haus that has said they have residents in need of masks,” Bullen said. “At this point, we have no idea how many are going to come in, but we will reach out to the county’s emergency management director if we end up with more than Guardian Angels needs.”

The idea of having Minnesotans help their neighbors is nothing new. In times of crisis, we have a history of coming together for the common good and helping those in need.

The method of delivery of the governor’s mask initiative, however, left something to be desired. Local fire departments are dealing with their own concerns – both as a department and under the cloud of COVID-19. But, as they typically do, the local fire departments will find a way to make good on Gov. Walz’s plan.

“It was a big decree with some rules that not a whole lot of people were prepared for,” Bullen said. “For the departments, each one will have its own plan. I had four guys volunteer pretty quickly to cover that time, so we’re covered. There’s a need. I don’t necessarily like directives from above, especially when they put it on the local people to do the work with no warning, but it will work out on our end. The good thing is that it’s going to congregate care facilities that need them and we’ll do our part.” 

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