When Derek Bergsten, M.P.A. ’07, was pursuing his master’s in public administration at NIU, he learned that communication and collaboration were key to the success of any organization in meeting any challenge. Today, as Chief of the Rockford Fire Department, Bergsten says he’s putting these lessons to work more than ever before.

“More difficult situations require increasing the frequency and detail of communication while working together,” he said. “Especially when dealing with public safety, we have to ensure the public knows we have the training and plans in place to deal with any type of situation, such as a pandemic. Even though nobody ever thought there would be something to this extreme, we take the plans and training we have and use the foundation to respond and mitigate. Every experience with each class and professor at NIU has enabled me to be better prepared for the challenges our department faces.”

Derek Bergsten M.P.A. ’07

Bergsten has been chief since 2008. The Rockford Fire Department is the second-largest in Illinois with more than 300 employees, nine engines, four ladders and seven advanced support ambulances housed at 11 fire stations throughout the city. Even with all of his experience, a pandemic features new challenges.

“We have plans for every type of man-made or natural disaster, and this includes pandemic response,” he said. “We can prepare how to respond and with what resources we respond, but the challenges and duration of this event we have not been exposed to before. Dealing with something that nobody has experienced is challenging and straining on our personnel. We at the fire service pride ourselves on responding to any challenge that we face. We are dealing with this pandemic utilizing every tool and organization that we have worked with in the past and many new ones we have not.”

Dealing with something as unpredictable as COVID-19 means the fire department can only rely on their previous experience so much.

“We know how fire travels and spreads and how it affects buildings based on the construction,” Bergsten said. “Dealing with the pandemic is like nothing we have seen before. It is requiring us to prepare for situations that we have never faced. Shortages of PPE (personal protective equipment), major impacts on our workforce, hospitals at capacity, lack of ventilators and the duration of the event are challenges we have not faced before. It is hard to believe in 2020 that we would not have an adequate supply.”

Bergsten’s concerns are with his personnel facing the uncertain length of this crisis. “Please take time to recognize the men and women on the front line who work in hospitals,” he said. “And the firefighters, paramedics and police, who do not have the option to stay at home, encounter sick people and treat them with professionalism and care each and every day. It is taking a toll on healthcare workers and emergency responders. There is no end in sight and most are working long hours and many more days than normal. This does take a toll on them and their families.”