EAGLEVILLE — After nearly two decades as the director of the Montgomery County Department of Public Safety, Thomas M. Sullivan has retired.
Sullivan, 67, of Horsham Township, spent his last year presiding over the department during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was first reported locally in March 2020.
The ongoing public health crisis in which 38,603 people contracted the novel coronavirus claimed the lives of 1,099 in Montgomery County as of 12:30 p.m. Jan 15, 2021, according to the county’s COVID-19 resources webpage.
“Well, it’s been compelling,” Sullivan said. “I mean at the beginning of this ... we operated our [Emergency Operations Center], and most of the people in public safety who were engaged in this worked about 100 days straight, probably 15-hour days at the beginning stages of this event, and it was people really scrambling to do the best they could to try to help people, and as the statistics and the data grew, more and more people died or got sick, we ramped up as best we could.”
Sullivan was included in the category of people working those 15-hour days.
When asked what the experience was like, he simply chuckled, admitting that looking back he could “barely remember it” because there were so “many other things going on it seems like a long time ago, but when we were doing it, it was all hands on deck.”
“For me, I just looked at it as part of my job,” he said. “It’s what we plan for whether it’s a pandemic, or other emergencies. They generally don’t happen during business hours. It’s just what we do.”
Sullivan initially had plans to retire earlier last year, Montgomery County Commissioners’ Chairwoman Valerie Arkoosh said during a December meeting, but he instead chose to defer to deal with the pandemic crisis.
“[I] didn’t want to abandon ship when things got tough, so I decided it was a good opportunity for me to stay and try to do my part,” Sullivan said.
And he did just that through the spring, lower positivity rates in the summer and eventual spikes of the COVID-19 pandemic’s second wave in the fall.
“Fortunately, we seem to be approaching the end of it now, but the work hasn’t stopped because vaccinating 840,000 people twice is a big job, so we’re working closely with our partners, and other county agencies, and municipal agencies to try and pull that together ... it’s a massive job, but it’s been a challenge and kind of energizing to deal with those kind of major issues when the stakes are so high,” Sullivan said.
Hard work isn’t something that Sullivan said he’s ever shied away from.
“I’m one of those strange people,” he said. “I look forward to coming to work not only here, but every job I ever had since I was in eighth grade.”
Originally from Montgomery County, Sullivan said his first job was washing dishes at a country club. Sullivan went on to attend West Chester University and earn a degree in criminal justice. He had plans to continue his education and get his master’s degree in psychology, but his time as a volunteer firefighter in the late 1970s in his native Wyndmoor changed everything.
Sullivan said he appreciated the “physical challenge of fighting fires and being part of a team” at the Springfield Township fire company.
“It reminded me of my high school sports days being part of a team with a bunch of people who work really hard, and enjoy the physical challenge, and I was … hooked,” Sullivan said.
“So instead of getting a graduate degree in psychology, I got a graduate degree in public safety, and ... ended up in some jobs that I really enjoyed over the years,” he continued.
Those jobs included fire marshal and director of emergency services in Upper Moreland Township from 1989 until 2002 when he moved on to the directorship position at the county level.
Sullivan called the director of the county’s public safety department an “interesting position, especially following the events of 9/11.”
Sullivan recalled there being “an influx of resources” to emergency management and response entities across the nation, which allowed for an emphasis on technological upgrades.
“So we’d gone from an agency that had some computers, and a lot of whiteboards, and binders to a very high tech industry, and being a part of that over the years has been very interesting,” he said.
In addition to program advancements, Sullivan also noted a change in “expectations” throughout his tenure as director of the county’s public safety department.
“There’s an expectation that people in my position and our department would be prepared for any eventuality and able to respond immediately,” he said. The focus has shifted from natural disasters to all hazards and risks that the county faces, he said. "So our planning and our execution of those plans is for any type of incident that could occur and the expectations are much greater that things will be returned to normal faster than they were in the past when I first came into this business.”
As someone who values education, Sullivan expressed his gratitude to continue learning while on the job. He spent time at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and took part in an eight-day homeland security mission in Israel.
What was an ordinary day like for Sullivan? The short answer -- there were none.
“This is a very busy department,” he said. “It’s one of the busiest in Pennsylvania in each of our divisions.”
“You come to work thinking you’re gonna be accomplishing bureaucratic type of work -- normal stuff -- and that very often changes because we are subject to severe weather events in this area,” Sullivan said.
“There are a lot of interesting, unusual and sometimes tragic events, and we’re right in the midst of all that. So no day was typical,” he said.
In addition to 2020 weather events, Sullivan noted the department’s assistance with the ongoing public health crisis, “civil unrest,” the 2020 election season, as well as daily operations for area police, fire and emergency medical services.
He credited the administration’s success to its 300 employees. Sullivan also emphasized the importance of the existing training programs for first responders.
“Fortunately, we have well trained, well exercised staff … we have very good first responders who are all well trained, disciplined and work closely together,” Sullivan said. “Our police, fire and EMS are essentially one team with us and we’re fortunate to have that. It’s not that way everywhere.”
There could be up to 3,000 calls for service daily across Montgomery County that require assistance from area first responders, which Sullivan stressed has “to be managed and ... executed really with [a] 100 percent success rate.”
Sullivan officially retired on Jan. 5 and passed the baton to Deputy Director Michael Vest.
While “it will be the first time in many, many years” where he won’t have his radio, his “phone on at night” or “lay my clothes out at night to be ready to respond,” he’s looking forward to spending time with his family and enjoying some R&R at one of his “favorite places,” Ocean City, N.J.
After that, Sullivan said he’d like to consult.
“I still feel like I have something I can contribute to this profession through some consulting,” he said.