John, Health Environment Safety and Security Specialist... and firefighter!
It is difficult not to like firefighters. After all, they're the guys who brave the blaze and put their lives on the line to save your own. Their generosity and love for their fellow beings is overwhelming. As the saying goes, to become a firefighter is the bravest move, the rest is just the day job. This holds true for John Kelly, senior Health Environment Safety and Security Specialist (HESS) at King of Prussia facility. As he says: “Saving people has always felt good. To help someone in need and bring calm to chaos is very rewarding.”
John has always lived around Pennsylvania and has no plan to move on. “I was born in Montgomery County - about 15 miles from the site. I spent my whole life in the suburbs. It is a really nice place to live. The weather is great. There are no wild seasonal swings and vast temperature extremes. There is a whole load of things to do – getting out into the countryside, or heading out to the East Coast shores, New York City or Washington D.C. which are two hours’ drive away. For all these reasons, I've never wanted to move away and in 2012, when Arkema offered me to join their KOP plant, I jumped at the chance.”
From Toy Trucks to the Real Deal
His love of firefighting started in early childhood. Firefighting is a family thing. “A lot of kids grow up wanting to be a firefighter or policeman, I was no different, I had a toy big fire truck, but above all I got to see what firefighting was all about for real: my father was volunteer chief at the town fire department, that obviously influenced me; I started to going out on call with my dad. I didn't get in with the action but I did help clean up, I really enjoyed it and it was a great way to spend time with my dad”, he recalls.
His early career as a volunteer firefighter flew very naturally, he joins the Worcester and Skippack Fire Companies and sharpened his skills. Besides, he undertook many trainings in the emergency services field and quickly started to teach classes. Since 1990 he is Senior Instructor at the Montgomery County Fire Academy and in Montgomery County Public Safety Campus. In addition, he is serving as Emergency Management Coordinator, has Certified Fire Protection Specialists certification, is an Emergency Medical Technician, and Chairs the Montgomery County Fire Advisory Committee. But he never left the field. Since he started working at King of Prussia, he joined the King of Prussia Volunteer Fire Company and has a permission to leave during daytime work to respond to emergencies when available.
Professional life was not so straightforward. After completing his degree in business management, he started out in the business world but things did work out as expected. All the while, however, he was still on call with his beloved fire squads. Eventually he got a Master's in public safety, that finally led him to Safety field for big company. In 2012, John entered in Arkema.
Safety first, always
At KOP, the safety specialist’s duty list is long as your arm and John juggles his schedule between deskwork and facility inspections. Chemical plants are among the most inspected industrial installations which brings a constant stream of paperwork and authorizations. “As one of three safety specialists here, we provide security services to all sectors at KOP – the R&D laboratory, the pilot plant, business groups as well as the maintenance group – this means providing safe work permits, safety reviews, process reviews, job safety analysis, project and equipment reviews, and organoleptic assessments. We have to develop safety training and work with emergency response teams. What is more, I'm responsible for our medical programs, I investigate, I draw up action plans, I update site emergency response procedures and generally promote safety across KOP through cross-campus awareness campaigns.”
Walking the Walk, Talking the Talk
John spends a lot of time in situ meticulously checking safety facilities and safety conditions, observing, resolving issues and advising employees in safety procedures for their specific projects. He has to deal with a whole host of different people in a whole array of professions. Working with people this way, he gets to know them more. And because everyone likes a firefighter, he is constantly approached for advice and reassurance. “I interact with everybody on the site from CEOs to new recruits, from contractors to policemen; in this profession you have to train people, teach them new stuff, and sometimes they don’t always understand so you have to find some way of explaining that reaches out to people and the way they understand things. Constant dialogue is essential”, he says.
Moreover, getting around the campus is a great way to keep fit. “It is healthier to get out on the terrain every day. Firefighting is a strenuous and dangerous activity, so you have to be in good physical condition to do the job properly. I like to keep active, stay healthy. I'm diet conscious and exercise every day ; walking around the site is a part of this.”
What about chemistry? A subject you always enjoyed? John wasn't heavily involved in chemistry before he joined Arkema but he has loved it ever since. “I am not a trained chemist, but I found something different here, there is always something new every day, I have to deal with new products, develop new missions, there is always something going on and from a safety point of view, we are also looking to find totally new solutions for problems and find the safest methods; that makes things interesting”, he explains.
Working in chemistry has changed the way he looks at products. “It is very interesting to look at the things we use everyday and that we take for granted. These days I look at them at their basic chemical level and it is kind of interesting to be able to see how processes begin and work."
His extra-curricular firefighting work and his HESS duties obviously have points in common. Each informs the other. “Things I do at work support outside activities and vice versa, I bring back experiences that help us here. Fortunately, we've never had any serious issues at KOP, but it is definitely helped me to anticipate, lay down the groundwork and train people in how to respond in the event. It is also helped me build relationships with outside responders. When you run a local fire department, you get a certain level of communication, people ask what you are doing and you learn from them; if ever we did have an incident here, guys would feel more comfortable in dealing with it because they'd know what to look out for and they'd know what I am looking for”, he smiles.
Experience is the most valuable skill John has to offer. When he speaks, his voice is calm, smoothing and composed. You get the feeling everything is going to be all right. “Every time we deal with the public, something bad could happen. There might be a fire, there might be a medical issue, a vehicle rescue, a confined space rescue, a train rescue, road rescue, collapse rescue, or there could be a hazardous material incident. The list is endless. Since 9/11, we have been more involved in responding to terrorist incidents.”
So how do you deal with people in such moments of drama? “You have to stay calm, reassure people. When things get chaotic, people expect us to bring calm; it is exactly the same with safety at KOP. It is maybe the main message I'm try to put out there.”
The Firefighting Family Man
Today, John will drive fire trucks to the scene, put an air pack on and go inside, or whatever else is needed. “Being a fireman in a squad has always meant teamwork. We all have to stick together. You can't do anything by yourself; but with age you gain wisdom and experience. That is the way life goes. There is always something essential for everyone to do. First and foremost, I like to bring my experience of the job, show the younger guys the right direction, how to do things safely so that no one gets hurt.”
And the big wheel keeps on turning. John’s twenty-something son is studying fire-safety engineering, following in his father's and grandfather's footsteps. “We are a firefighter family”, says John. Indeed, we all thank the Kelly for being there when it counts.