SUN PRAIRIE, Wis. (WMTV) In Sun Prairie, grass now grows where the Barr House and the Glass Nickel once stood at the corner of Main and Bristol Streets. A visible sign that the healing process continues after the fatal gas explosion on July 10, 2018 that leveled a part of the city's downtown and killed Fire Captain Cory Barr.
One year has passed, but the memories are still fresh in the minds of those who work as first responders and especially those who call Sun Prairie home. In the past 365 days, a lot has already changed. Sun Prairie Fire Chief Christopher Garrison and Sun Prairie Police Lieutenant Kevin Konopacki reflected on the the lesson learned from that fateful day and the changes their departments have implemented.
Sun Prairie Police Dept. Lessons Learned:
"Communication. Communication. Communication," said Lt. Konopacki. Not just with first responders, but also with the community.
Lt. Konopacki became the face of information for the Sun Prairie Explosion. Typically with a gas leak, the fire department would run point on it. However, he knew early on, after checking in with his higher ups, that police would have to step up as there had been a fatality in the fire house. Lt. Konopacki then assumed the role of becoming the Public Information Officer (PIO) for the incident. The first thing he did was start gathering information and set a press conference.
"Then I started going around and just trying to ask questions: 'What can we release right now?' and 'What do we know?,'" said Lt. Konopacki. It was tough because he said it was "pretty fluid at that time" as there was a lot that was unknown because crews were still fighting the fire.
One thing the police department has since implemented is a Twitter account. It launched in Dec. 2018. Lt. Konopacki said it's a great way to "instantaneously get information out" to the community that is accurate.
"It was the training of the officers and the fire department recognizing you never take these calls for granted," said Lt. Konopacki.
The night of the explosion he was at home when he found out what had happened.
"I remember one of the first things going through my mind is, 'Oh my God! It actually really did happen,'" said Lt. Konopacki.
He said as first responders, they responded to a number of call for gas leaks - almost daily. While first responders know that an explosion is always a potential scenario, many never think it will turn out that way. Lt. Konopacki said first responders have always put an emphasis on training, but this event just proves you have to be ready for anything.
"We can be smart. We can train. And we can avoid be reckless, but effective," said Lt. Konopacki.
Sun Prairie Fire Dept. Lessons Learned:
Taking care of people
Tactically, Chief Garrison said there was absolutely nothing his team could have done differently to prevent the explosion from happening. What he took away from this incident is the importance of taking care of his people.
"We had to take care of them physically and more than that we had to take care of them mentally," said Chief Garrison. "That was the biggest issue we had to deal with because these types of things affect everybody differently."
While some turned to counseling, others to clergy, and some to their families, Chief Garrison said he wanted to makes sure every one was getting the help that they needed. The fire department quickly implemented an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and the chief ordered everyone to talk to a peer assessor. The Sun Prairie Fire Dept. teamed up with the Fitchburg Fire Dept. where fire fighters could talk to a fellow fire fighters to find out who may need more intervention.
Chief Garrison said the EAP is still up and running and that his fire fighters are still using it.
Just as with police, Chief Garrison credits the fact that more lives were not lost due to the training his fire fighters are dedicated to.
Chief Garrison said, "The way we run this fire department is very unique. And the most unique thing about it is the training that our volunteer/paid on-call staff do."
He said they "train hard and wicked." And it's that training that brings them together and is actually helping with the healing process. Click here to see some of the fire department's latest training sessions
Keeping a watchful eye out for Capt. Barr's family
Chief Garrison described the relationship with Capt. Barr's widow, Abby, similar to their little sister. He said he is personally in contact with Abby regularly and said she will always have a home at the fire house.
"We will never stop watching over her until she tells us to," said Chief Garrison. "Abby is going to move on with her life, but we will always be there for her. Forever."
But, it's not just Abby. Chief Garrison said at the fire department, they embrace each others' families. They make it a point to know one another and hang out together.
While this night of terror was all unfolding, both Chief Garrison and Lt. Konopacki said it was the community that came together and gave all of the first responders strength.
"I had more people come up just 'Hey, can I help you?' Citizens who said, "Hey, what do you need?,' Lt. Konopacki remembered. He said they were bring water, Gatorade, and food. They even jumped in to help evacuated a nearby senior assisted-living center.
Through it all, Chief Garrison said his department and the community have come back stronger than ever.
"We have been very resilient. It almost sounds cliche this Sun Prairie Strong thing, but it's so true," said Chief Garrison.
"Thank you Sun Prairie! Thank you Sun Prairie!," said Lt. Konopacki. "Because were all in this together and it's just going to muck us stronger. Sun Prairie Strong, right? And it's going to make us better moving forward."