This is Brian O'Keefe
Updated: Dec 14, 2021
By Jennifer Ersalesi
Photo credits: Borough of Rutherford, Catherine O'Keefe, and Kerry O'Keefe
After over four decades as the Borough's Board of Health Director, Brian O'Keefe has retired from his position. Throughout his many years of service to the Borough, Brian devoted many hours to the Borough protecting the health and safety of the community. Brian has also been a member of the Rutherford Ambulance Corps for many years and has given back to his community through his selfless role as an EMT. This is Rutherford had the opportunity to learn more about Brian, his career, and his service in the Ambulance Corps.
TIR: When did you discover you had an interest in the medical field and becoming an EMT?
Brian O’Keefe: When I was in college, I had to do six weeks in a community health organization, so I did my six weeks at the Kearny Health Department. The health officials in Kearny were terrific and I developed an interest in exploring a career in local public health.
Regarding the Ambulance Corps and becoming a volunteer EMT, I have lived in town since I was two years old, I would see the Ambulance Corps at scenes of calls and public events and also felt that they served the town well, and I wanted to be part of that organization.
TIR: Where did you go to school? What did you study?
BO: I received a Bachelor of Science degree from Montclair State University, in community health education, I then completed the Environmental Health and Law Program at Rutgers University. Upon completion of the classroom portion of the program, I then had to do six weeks of internship at a local health department. I then was eligible to sit for the state health department licensing exam, and I was fortunate to pass the test licensing exam the first time I attempted.
TIR: Forty-eight years ago you joined the Volunteer Ambulance Corps in Rutherford. How have you seen things change over the years?
BO: The field of EMS has greatly changed since I became a volunteer EMT with the Rutherford Volunteer Ambulance Corps back in 1973. When I first started with the Ambulance Corps we were dispatched by phone by a physician's answering service. Today we all have toned activated walkie-talkies. We now have cardiac defibrillators, Epi-pens, Narcan to use on narcotic overdoses, and the assistance of mobile intensive care services by the hospital-based paramedics coming out into one's home, starting the hospital care right in one's home or at the scene of a motor vehicle accident.
TIR: Both your wife, Catherine, and son, Patrick, are also part of the Volunteer Ambulance Corps. Can you describe this experience?
BO: It brings great satisfaction to see my son, Patrick, on his own, undertake the 205 hours plus EMT class and pass the written and practical portions of the national registry test program for the first time around.
Also, my wife and I used to ride together but stopped when Ebola was a threat. We did not want to be quarantined for three weeks away from our kids if we were exposed.
I wanted to mention that my daughter Kerry is also a member of the organization. Although she doesn’t want to become an EMT, she participates by supporting the business end of the organization.
TIR: After 43 years, you retired from your position in the Borough as the Health Director. What did you find most rewarding about this position?
BO: I found the most rewarding part of my job was to assist residents with problems and get the problem resolved for them. When you work in a particular field, you assume that the knowledge and skills you have obtained are understood by the average person, but that is not the case.
Dr. Joseph DeFazio told TIR, “It has been a pleasure working with Brian as a member of the Board and currently as the President of the Board of Health. He has shown, throughout his career, the utmost professionalism in dealing with Borough residents and with the members of the Board. His knowledge of public health issues, policies, and procedures is exemplary. He most certainly will be missed. I wish him all the best in his retirement.”
TIR: What were some of the challenges of your position?
BO: Dealing with the public is always challenging. No one likes to be told what to do. A local health department enforces public health regulations and you are required to deal with residents informing them that they have to correct a certain violation. Or telling them during COVID that they have to quarantine for 14 days and not to go to work or school. That did not always go over very well with the public.
Mayor Frank Nunziato, “I'm grateful for how committed Brian was to Rutherford for 43 years. I'm especially grateful to have had him, and his experience and dedication, by my side during COVID. His leadership of the Health Department gave our community a sense of stability through an otherwise uncertain time. I'd like to wish Brian the best of luck in retirement and hope he enjoys every minute of it.”
TIR: Over the last sixteen months, you most likely faced one of the scariest, most difficult times in the Borough. What did you do to help protect the members of the community and provide them with accurate, updated information?
BO: Many changes and advancements in public health and in the general workplace were the inventions of the Internet and e-mail. The Internet and e-mail allowed us to receive daily updates from the state health department on rules and recommendations that needed to take place when dealing with COVID issues. I can't imagine what would have happened if we didn't have those two tools available to us. Guidelines were continuously updated during the pandemic
“Brian is a legend in Rutherford. His experience and institutional knowledge will certainly be missed. As liaison to the Health Department, I've learned so much from him and I know firsthand how Brian guided the Borough through the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. While we'll miss him in the Borough, we hope he enjoys his retirement in good health,” explained Councilman Tom Mullahey.
TIR: Throughout the pandemic, you worked closely with the Mayor and Council as well as Jack Hurley to determine which steps to take to keep students and staff safe in the schools and throughout the community. How did you face the challenges that arose during this time by working collaboratively?
BO: Prior to the COVID pandemic, I had a professional working relationship with the Superintendent of Schools Jack Hurley, going back to when he was the high school principal. So, the working relationship needed during the pandemic had already been established for many prior years. I have worked with all eight (8) borough administrators since the position was created and worked with nine (9 )mayors, and 65 council members during my tenure at the health department. On a local level in my 43 year career in the Rutherford Health Department, the elected officials and borough administrators never interfered with the necessary public health decisions that needed to be made by their local health departments for the benefit of their residents. In addition, New Jersey towns are required to have an autonomous board of health, who are separate and distinct from the governing body which is served by residents who volunteer their time and talent to the borough. I worked with many, many outstanding boards of health members over the years.
“I think I can speak for both myself and Janet Calhoun, RN through the past years, Brian O'Keefe has become the best boss in the world. Always a man of few words, but we as nurses always knew we had the support of Brian. It really came to fruition during the beginning of Covid-19 when Janet and I worked many days overtime, seven days a week trying to make sense and order of what was an extremely fluid situation in the beginning. Brian worked tirelessly and side by side with us in the trenches assisting and guiding us through what were really difficult months. We constantly bounced scenarios and ideas off one another. We can't think of a better boss to have worked with through the beginnings of Covid-19. Brian O' Keefe will truly be missed by our department and the community of Rutherford he served for forty-three years!” explained Therese Hoff, RN, and Janet Calhoun, RN.
TIR: What was it like volunteering with the Ambulance Corps at the height of the pandemic?
BO: While I am a member of the Ambulance Corps, completing 48 years of service this year and I am still certified as an EMT since 1973, I had not been riding during the pandemic. My full-time efforts were working with the two public health nurses, Janet Calhoun RN and Therese Hoff RN at the health department regarding contact tracing and other issues dealing with the COVID pandemic. I must note that during the pandemic, the members of the ambulance corps continued to handle all types of calls during the pandemic. This was not the case in all New Jersey communities. Some EMS squads did not handle COVID cases, Rutherford did, a great credit to the Rutherford Volunteer Ambulance Corps.
“Brian and I have been friends for 40+ years. He is a dedicated hard worker. Brian is an EMT with the ambulance squad and spent many years as an officer. I wish Brian the best, in all his future endeavors,” Mike Tarantino, Director of the Bergen County EMS, told TIR.
TIR: Will you continue to be a member of the Rutherford First-Aid Ambulance Corps?
BO: I am a life member of the ambulance corps and will continue to assist as the need arises.
TIR: What are your plans for retirement?
BO: Currently I have no definitive plans during retirement, just enjoying less stress and less anxiety in my life.