A rare challenge – and opportunity – is facing us during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While fire service personnel face a new, invisible threat, we are also presented a moment for growth.
I urge you to not only be an observer, but also a participant and a student of the process, the politics and the economics of this unparalleled moment in history.
There are several ways we as a fire service can lead from the front and serve with integrity through this crisis.
Live in the real-world COVID-19 classroom
Fire and EMS personnel are the tip of the spear for the COVID-19 emergency response, and you are sitting in a front-row classroom seat.
Many of you are faced with swelling call volumes, while you have children at home and schools closed indefinitely. Group events of more than 10 people are discouraged, and restaurants, bars and theaters closed. We should encourage those who can do so to JUST STAY HOME.
The reality is that WE cannot just stay home. In addition to all your normal exposures, this reality means you’re faced with the increasing threat of exposure to a new virus, which, frankly, we don’t know much about. I am profoundly proud of our members, as we show up to work and volunteer every day to serve our communities, faced with the unknown and the ever-evolving atmosphere of information – and disinformation.
From a learning perspective, this situation, at every level from the White House down to your community fire station, should be no different than any other incident, big or small. What is different is the instant-global-information opportunity to watch, listen, learn and improve. The world-firefighter-stage is your show, and there will be no intermission for quite some time.
You need to watch the politics and the economics, too. This is a prime opportunity to be a political student, which will help you in future crises in ways you can only imagine at the moment. The economic dominos are lining up for a potentially epic financial crunch, crash or recession. Both the politics and the economics will impact resource availability to your fire departments for years to come. The checkbooks may be open right now, but I assure you that is temporary.
Avoid misinformation and hyperbole
Although this is certainly not the first time the fire service has been involved in a public health crisis, it is the first time in the social media age, where we find ourselves with so much information immediately available at our fingertips.
It is critical that your fire department not become “that department” that forwards information or guidance found to be inaccurate or flat-out wrong. Your organization’s legacy should be measured on the service you provide, not the misinformation you peddle or the story you screw up. A public health emergency is the time to stay in your lane, NOT the time to be thinking outside the proverbial box, pontificating about topics on which we are not experts, like epidemiology.
There’s so much disinformation and hyperbole surrounding the current situation, which will, if it has not already, challenge your ability to communicate with the community and deliver service. Our communities generally trust the fire department, and they will lean heavily on what you say and what they see you do.
Practice community and member care
There is what I’ll call “reasonable chaos” at the moment. Reasonable because this is a novel virus (novel meaning this virus has never before been experienced in human beings) spreading across the world at alarming rates, with protocols for dispatch and response changing daily.
Unreasonable chaos is demonstrated by myriad conflicting fire department policies – each purporting to be the right way to handle this situation. I implore you to get together with your neighbors and make sure we come together in our response. From a community perspective, the unreasonable chaos is fed by things like the hoarding of toilet paper and perishables. Let’s make sure our firehouses don’t feed into that narrative, too.
There are some simple steps we can follow to model good behavior for the community and take care of ourselves. This includes practicing what we preach with good hygiene, primarily washing your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds, coughing into your arm, and not coming to work if you’re sick. Social distancing is difficult in our line of business, but limiting the number of people in any given area is doable.
We always have a solemn responsibility to serve. That responsibility is amplified by the current situation that stands to tax our service delivery systems like never before. It is imperative that we do everything we can to minimize the risk to our members while upholding our oath to protect and serve our communities.
If you have not already, it is time to implement a daily wellness check for each employee or volunteer as they report for duty – setting up a system for at least a quick forehead temperature scan, and checking the boxes for the absence of cough, sore throat or shortness of breath. The checkboxes are certainly an honor system setup, but that’s where our individual integrity and supervisor’s responsibility come together. Maybe you add pulse ox, maybe more specific questions. (See the Highlands County PDF at the end of this article for a sample.)
Additionally, appropriate levels of PPE need to be available now or when your protocols dictate. Source it now if you have not already; resources are already becoming scarce.
Some departments have established dedicated COVID-19-only response units, an attempt to limit the spread among crews and transport units.
Plan for quarantines and remote work
New for many of us in this situation is the opportunity for things like virtual EOCs and work-from-home setups for administrators.
And quarantine measures are inevitable. A constant stream of news keeps us informed of the hundreds of firefighters currently isolated or quarantined due to possible exposure.
What are you doing to prepare your department, your shift/crew, yourself and your family for potential isolation or quarantine?
It should be noted that the president’s invocation of the Defense Production Act is an unprecedented move in modern times, meant to focus public/private resources and strengthen federal capabilities in unprecedented times. Under section 361 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S. Code § 264), the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services is authorized to take measures to prevent the entry and spread of communicable diseases. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has broad authorities under its powers, capable of ordering actual quarantine to any of up to 20 federal quarantine sites scattered across the nation.
Reflect on history
Although rarely used, the federal government can order quarantine. Large-scale isolation and quarantine were used during the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918, which also tested fire departments worldwide. The test differed in scope and scale – less population and fewer resources – as well as availability of information. Firefighters were not able to query data on their smartphone nor able to have dispatch check the CAD.
The District of Columbia Fire Department lost seven firefighters to the Spanish flu. Even though quarantine and isolation procedures were in place, the department was working firefighters every day 24/7, with only one day off a month. Historians report that seven DC firefighters died from the flu while on duty, with several of them dying in their fire station bunks.
The FDNY lost 14 firefighters to the Spanish flu, with nine firehouses in Brooklyn taking the brunt of it. There were 346 cases reported within the FDNY ranks, handled by an equally diminishing medical doctor force.
The Spanish Flu of 1918 infected 500 million people worldwide – about 27% of the world’s population at the time. Somewhere between 17 and 50 million died as a result.
There was no national fire protection system at the time, and without the advent of robust communications and media systems, the opportunities for the fire service to learn was limited to firsthand knowledge and attendance at funerals. We have the unique opportunity 102 years later to pick up where the firefighters in 1918 left off.
Be a part of the solution
Anybody who tells you, “Oh, I’ve been through this before” is likely embellishing – or sick themselves. “Unprecedented,” “historic,” “disastrous,” “catastrophic,” “epic” – these are words that should not fall deaf on our ears.
Use this national emergency and these moments of chaos to learn, to develop your leadership skills, and to take care of each other.
Be a part of your community’s solutions, not part of the unreasonable chaos.
Highlands County (Florida) Fire Rescue Provider Monitoring Form
Fire departments should implement a daily wellness check for each employee or volunteer as they report for duty – setting up a system for at least a quick forehead temperature scan, and checking the boxes for the absence of cough, sore throat or shortness of breath.