Lately I have read social media posts from several firefighters and EMS personnel saying “I didn’t sign up for this?”. I am not sure what they mean by that. Responding to an infectious disease? Risk of exposure to a threat to their health? Multiple calls to really sick people? Dealing with incidents while concerned about not having enough information or the right and sufficient PPE? All of the above? Yes, my colleagues, Covid-19 is a new and potentially deadly threat we are being asked to deal with.
Well, you did sign up for this. Not specifically coronavirus Covid-19 but you did sign up to respond, provide aid and mitigation to all emergencies and threats to life and health. And that does not exclude pandemics or communicable diseases. Fire and EMS personnel have been responding to these types of calls all along. HIV/AIDS, H1N1, bird flu, SARs and swine flu but to name a few. Over the last 50 years Fire and EMS agencies have become “all hazards” response agencies. This is in large part due to need and public expectation but as a service we endorsed it. We altered training to deal with new threats. We adapted and acquired new equipment to aid our response. We created and shared best practices so we were proficient. We requested and applied budget increases and grants to expand our services. We developed specialties in specific threat areas to lead us in those incidents. And we were proud of our new and expanded roles.
Is there risk, danger and health concerns as we respond to coronavirus patients? Absolutely! But there is also risk, danger and health concerns when we respond to other infectious diseases, fires, Haz Mat incidents, terrorism, USAR incidents, active shooters and hazardous weather events. The difference is we have learned how to deal with those incidents and are now prepared for them, but we were not always prepared. We had to learn, adapt and implement new practices to do so and now we have a comfort level in doing so. Not many in Fire and EMS were around in the early 1980s when HIV/AIDS was first identified. Just like Covid-19 there was not a lot known yet about transmission, fatality potential, necessary PPE and treatments. Just like now there was fear, stress among responders, questions about response procedures and even if we should respond at all to known HIV/AIDS patients. But we did respond, we learned and adapted. In talking to Fire officers and EMS leaders across the country that is exactly happening again. Fire and Emergency Services nationwide are learning, innovating, adapting, training and creating new practices.
So, in our All Hazards Mission, which we have proudly heralded for at least 30 years you did “sign up for this” but your predecessor’s felt that way at times in the past as well so it is a natural reaction when we are in the early stages of dealing with a new threat and stress levels are high. Just like any crisis, Emergency Services leaders at every level must step up their efforts of support, information sharing, encouragement of innovation and flexibility in policy for their personnel. One of the best aspects of the Fire and Emergency services disciplines is our ability to adapt and find new best practices. That will once again serve us well in developing our ability to deal with any pandemic now and in the future.
This pandemic caught our Fire and Emergency Services off guard but it should not have. In November of 2005, the George W Bush administration’s Department of Homeland Security released a report (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/pdf/pandemic-influenza-strategy-2005.pdf) that recommended preparation for pandemic at Federal, State and local levels. As a fairly well briefed and tuned-in Fire Chief in a college town at the time, I don’t remember seeing it or hearing about it. And in the 2016 National Wingspread VI report which is the Fire and Emergency Services national leadership’s “Statements of National Significance to the United States Fire and Emergency Services” there is no mention of pandemic preparation at all. So, it is not surprising this caught us all a little short but the lesson for leaders is, if we are truly in the “all hazards” business, let’s not get caught off guard again. Research, stockpiling, paying attention to intelligence reports, maintaining contacts with public health agencies and improving our all hazards practices and training must be the new “normal” added responsibilities for Fire and Emergency Services leaders.
While you may feel like “I didn’t sign up for this”, remember one of the things about Fire and Emergency Services that motivates many of us is the constant and different challenges our duties bring us and this is just another one, albeit a little scarier and more unknown, at least for now.But Fire and Emergency Services will adapt and manage it.It’s what we do!
Additional Commentary on “Did I sign up for this?”
John Oates, Fire Chief
East Hartford FD, CT
Thanks for sharing. A couple of thoughts….
I am not (and never will be) a New England Patriots fan, but the Belichick-ism of ‘do your damn job’ comes to mind. And that goes for all of us - leaders included. I have heard way too many bemoaning “this is hard” or “there’s too much to do” on the forty billion daily conference calls. Well, no shit. We don’t get to pick. If you don’t want to work hard, you chose the wrong line of work. Grind.
Two things firefighters hate: the way things are, and change. We are certainly not good at the pace of change that has surrounded the COVID preparation/response. When we are sometimes changing things daily to react/respond to new information, there is a certain level of fatigue. When speed of comprehension is tested and operational tempo outpaces the capacity of even your highest performers, a reduction in pace is probably needed.
I think we need to recognize the tremendous impact this event is and will have on member behavioral health. Think about the totality of the universe: increased/mega stress at work; family life completely turned upside down (most parents didn’t sign up to be teacher); kids have no school, no sports, no friend contact; everything and anything that we do to manage stress (sports, friends, social activities, faith-based groups) isn’t available; heck, even going to the grocery store is a pain in the neck. Add to it the uncertainty/invisibility of the little germ we are trying to fight and the fact that now I have to spend all of this time at home and it’s not surprising when people act up or act out. We need to be providing the leadership and support for those people now and moving forward.
I also fear that this may be the death knell of the volunteer fire/ems organization. Recruitment and retention are challenging enough before this; it’s nearly impossible in this environment.
Again, I appreciate the wisdom and insight and miss hearing it more often. If you’d like a quick, yet insightful, read on the issue I recommend this: https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=civmilresponse-program-sims-uo-2019
Mike Burton, Fire Chief
Suncoast Fire & Rescue, FL
Well done and on point. For what it is worth, in the previous service expansions like tech rescue, Haz-Mat, SWAT medics, etc., they were often accomplished by team of folks that chose to take on that mission over and above their customary duties. The balance of the department then served in a support role to help make them more successful. There was usually a place that someone “who valued the benefit of being a well-rested firefighter” could seek to avoid the skills expansion. That is NOT the case with COVID as there is no place for anyone to hide.
I like the analogy on HIV as we all struggled with our lack of preparation and knowledge, and it is what we have been doing with COVID as new information flows out every week from the medical community.
After doing more entry level interviews than I can count, when asked about why one would want to work in the Fire/EMS world the answer is almost always some variety of “I just want to help people”. I have had to remind some that I hired over the years of their answer to that question when they lose focus. So, if you really want to help people, handle COVID calls and new duties that we never envisioned 8 weeks ago like the professionals that we profess to be and return to that interview question of “why?”.
So, help the really sick people who have delayed calling for help out of fear, clean the rig and equipment more thoroughly than ever, look after one another and their families, take the fire truck to a drive-by birthday party for a kid that can’t have one. It’s really just an opportunity to return to our foundations of helping those in need.
Thanks all for letting me ramble. Be well, be safe, and be nice! Kim Woodward, EMS Operations Manager
Orange County, NC
Eow!! Well said sir!! For me, H1N1 was. Real wake up call. To understand you will lose 20% of your work force, to know you better have contingency plans for when you couldn’t get supplies or PPE. Well, as was said in the movie Poltergeist so illustriously, “they’re here!!” (Or more aptly, We’re here!!)