Since it first launched in 2016, Bellmont Partners has been partnering with the Minnesota Firefighter Initiative (MnFIRE) to provide Minnesota’s firefighters the tools they need to prioritize and protect their health, and we couldn’t be more grateful for this ongoing, inspiring work that’s literally saving lives.
As former Richfield fire chief, Wayne Kewitsch has brought 24 years of experience in Minnesota’s fire service – and harrowing, first-hand understanding of the dangers firefighters face – to his new role helping firefighters across the state as MnFIRE’s first executive director. Since the special legislative session has finally come to a close, we sat down with Wayne to chat about the recent passage of the Hometown Heroes Assistance Program bill, as well as what he’s been up to as leader of MnFIRE.
What inspired you to join MnFIRE and what keeps you going?
As a fire chief, I was always passionate about making sure my firefighters had the best access to education, training and equipment to keep them healthy. Healthy firefighters are more effective on emergency scenes, they’re less prone to injury and they experience a better overall quality of life. Our youngest son is now a firefighter. Doing everything I can to mitigate the hazards that he and his fellow firefighters experience keeps me going.
MnFIRE has been working tirelessly to pass the Hometown Heroes Assistance Program for several years now. Can you tell us about the monumental legislation that just passed and how it will impact the state’s fire service for years to come?
The Hometown Heroes Assistance Program (HHAP) does four primary things. First, it funds a critical illness insurance policy for every firefighter in the state. This is crucial as firefighters suffer from cardiac and cancer at significantly higher rates than the general public. This policy will help firefighters pay for the unforeseen costs of treatment. Second, it will fund the MnFIRE Assistance Program (MAP). Ninety percent of the firefighters in Minnesota are volunteer or paid-on-call, basically part-time firefighters, and do not have access to an employee assistance program. MAP will assist those firefighters experiencing emotional trauma by providing for multiple visits with a licensed clinician. Third, it will fund the development and delivery of education for healthcare providers statewide in the special needs of firefighters. Finally, it will continue to fund ongoing training to all Minnesota firefighters in the areas of cardiac, cancer, emotional trauma and overall firefighter well-being. The hope is that with additional education we will reduce the incidence of serious firefighter illness and duty-related death.
Are there any success stories from this important work that stick with you?
Two things come to mind. The first is the change in the culture of the Minnesota fire service regarding health and wellness during my 24-year career and how that pace of change has increased since the start of MnFIRE. There is a moral imperative to firefighting; the public expects us to put ourselves in harm’s way. However, that doesn’t mean that we as firefighters shouldn’t do what we can to mitigate those hazards. More and more firefighters across Minnesota are taking the time to take care of themselves as they take care of others. The second is whenever someone comes up to me or one of the other MnFIRE team members and tells us how the work of MnFIRE has positively affected them, their family or their department.
How has our communications work together supported your mission?
Quite frankly, we would not be nearly as successful if it wasn’t for the work of Bellmont Partners. You truly understand our mission and have been able to leverage communications to successfully fulfill that mission. All aspects of our mission have been positively impacted by your work. The look and feel of all of our communication products is consistent across platforms and you’ve always given us excellent and outstanding advice and service.
This past year has been especially challenging for first responders. How do you personally manage stress and how have you approached your role as a leader during these times?
This past year has been extremely stressful for everyone, not just first responders. I enjoy walking, listening to music, reading, cooking and woodworking. I try to disconnect from the 24/7/365 digital life that we lead whenever practical and possible. As a leader during times like these it is imperative that one truly understand not only the needs but also the emotional state of their staff and how that is affecting their work and their lives. It’s always up to leadership to make sure to address and properly balance the needs of the organization with the needs of staff, but it is critical to monitor and strike a balance in times like these.
How can our readers support the work you’re doing for Minnesota’s firefighters and their families?
People can support MnFIRE in multiple ways. Monetary donations are welcome and will help fund programs and services for Minnesota firefighters and their families. Additionally, people can attend our annual golf tournament, MnFORE, which will be held Monday, May 23, 2022, at Bearpath Golf Club. Businesses can also contact me directly if they are interested in sponsorship opportunities at our different events.
And finally, our favorite question, What’s Brewing for you?
Prior to the pandemic, our family exclusively used a single-use coffee maker with reusable pods. My wife had coffee available at work, only needing a single cup for her commute, but she ended up working exclusively from home and we needed to make enough for the entire morning. We started checking out coffee makers and she decided we needed to go “old school” and we purchased a traditional percolator. Now every morning starts with the sound of coffee percolating just like it did on my grandmother’s farm.
Thank you, Wayne, for your dedication to Minnesota’s firefighters and the opportunity to partner on this important work. Stay tuned for more Q&As with business and marketing leaders as we reflect more on the role of communications and PR.