By Tim Pillsworth
When the end comes for the coronavirus pandemic, we will find there was much to learn from the struggle—much about the treatment of those infected, but also for the fire service in how to react and respond during a major global pandemic. After every emergency we respond to, large or small, we learn something new and change our preplans, policies, and methods. In the days, weeks, and months following 9/11, for example, we all changed how we responded to different emergencies. But there is always something to learn from our daily alarms, as well: maybe we respond to a “small” automatic alarm and find a wheelchair-bound resident or a building with substantial code issues.
Within a few days of 9/11, there were reports of ambulances that plans were discovered to steal ambulances and turn them into Improved Explosive Devices (IEDs). Prior to that moment, many fire departments would have the bay doors open to proudly show off their equipment and welcome the pubic into our house. My department was no different. People needing directions would just walk in and, being the public servants that we are, we helped. Soon after the reports surfaced, our bay doors were closed, doors were locked, and new written policies were enacted, all of which addressed building safety and security. While that horrible act did never took place, that fear made us change our operations 50 miles north of New York City.
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In the years to follow, the National Incident Management System (NIMS) with all the training classes were introduced to not only the fire and emergency services but also governments and businesses. This allowed everyone to work collectively under a unified command at any large-scale incident, working from the same playbook. Prior to 9/11, most communities did not manage emergency and events like this. Each group—firefighters, police, EMS, and government—just did their jobs their own ways. Each group of responders did their own thing with limited communications and differing plans and until those failures of 9/11 became evident. So, once again, lessons learned.
So what did we learn from the pandemic? Take some time and think about the good and bad events, news, and how your department changed its response. Some of those changes will be placed to the side unless there is a new mass illness, but others will not and become common for our daily response.
Handwashing was one of the most repeated admonishments during the pandemic. Along with many other departments, our agency placed hand sanitizer stations around the entire firehouse. We also installed touch free facets in the bathrooms. Members were encouraged and reminded to wash their hand as they enter and exit the firehouse. A great idea, and not just during a pandemic. A number of years ago, I started washing my hands each time I left the firehouse, after each call and drill. One thing I found was just how dirty my hands were from just being in the truck room, driving, or from being in the apparatus with my personal protective equipment (PPE) on. Our department has a good PPE cleaning policy and we clean our apparatus on a regular basis, but things are dirty around the firehouse. With the studies and reports on cancer in the fire service, I wanted to protect myself and family, so I started to wash my hands more often. Now I see our membership washing their hands much more often as well. This is a positive take away for now and well into the future.
General illness, head colds, and the like are now not welcome around the firehouse (or, for that matter) any workplace). Let’s face it, in the past, we all worked through a head cold of some type. Whether career or volunteer, we are tough, we tell ourselves, and we powered through it. That has changed. Although a simple sniffle may not necessarily send us home, if we are truly “sick” we are now to stay at home and get well. This is for not only our own health, but also for the safety of those with whom we serve. After the pandemic, we now are much more cognizant of our own health and the secondary effects. While there is not a mandated time period to self-isolate for the common cold, we all need to better.
What else has changed? The number of responders at alarms and being personable with members of our community. During the pandemic, at any alarm activation, only two or three members from the department would make entry into the home or facility to investigate. This reduced the amount of personal contact with the homeowners or those within the business. Maybe this a good idea for the future. We will be able to reduce tracking dirt into the homes and our PPE and tools can cause damage to the interior of homes. Should we continue this on into the future? It has its own pros and cons. Pros are protection of the interior of the home or business, privacy of the owners, and less contact for that protection. The cons are that it reduces the access to members to learn the alarm systems, building layouts, and general knowledge about the structure and occupants. To correct this, the officers should rotate the members they use to investigate the alarm and reset the system. This keeps the all the members involved and learning.
We have adjusted and staged our EMS PPE on all our apparatus. Prior to the pandemic, we had a box of gloves in the jumpseat, a pair in our own gear, and face masks in the crash bags. Today, we carry gloves, chemical exposure protective suits, N-95 masks, and other equipment in all apparatus in easy-to-access locations. I expect that we will reduce the amounts of “suits,” but now we have the knowledge about what we will need and when it is needed in the future.
As a company, we sent money to our local eateries (family-owned restaurants) for our members to use if they need the assistance. This helped our local businesses that give us donations, support, and sponsor our events, youth sport teams…in our town. Although this influx of money will not replace all of their losses, it them through a difficult time. For our members who were out of work because of the pandemic, we were able to support them and their families in a semiprivate manner. A small gesture, but it shows support for our community and members. In Small Town USA, the local businesses are the ones that support the community.
Communications became even more important during this time, including announcements of PPE locations, updated response protocols, support for the membership, and more. With the loss of the most effective form of communication, namely face-to-face meetings, e-mail became the primary form used. Although e-mails can have their pitfalls, well-written message sent on regular intervals keep the membership informed. Informal announcements continued to be given after alarms to those in attendance. Humans are social animals, and given the current isolation, these face-to-face contacts during and after alarms raised members’ spirits.
The senior members are the most at risk from the COVID-19 illness. Our young members made themselves available to pick up food or attend to other needs, thereby helping them keep away from groups of people. This show of companionship and support allowed the younger members to learn the importance of the senior members and their contributions to the department. The fire department is staffed with the young and the old, and one of the most important things for the young members to learn is the support and lessons from the senior members. It is all about being part of the house, not just a member.
In addition, stress, anxiety, and depression could have been an issue for some. It could stem from the fear of the illness, safety for yourself or of a loved one, or social isolation, and some of us could use some assistance. The county help lines for emergency personnel were sent out multiple times. We all checked on each other in our own ways: phone calls, texts, or a quick talk at an alarm. This fraternal quality has always abounded in the fire service, but it was just reinforced during the few trying months. If you have ever been injured, had a family emergency, or fell on hard times, you know that the department would be there for you.
It is also a good time to look at the department’s insurance and supplemental insurance policies. For many, the standard workman’s compensation payments might not match the weekly take-home pay for many/most members. That shortfall can in a very short time place a family in a financial emergency. Supplemental insurance policies that make up the difference between the state’s workman’s compensation and the member’s income is crucial. We cannot expect those who donate their time to be placed in finical hardship because they gave of themselves for their communities.
Many departments conducted drive-by birthday parties for their communities. What a great idea! But keep in mind that each time there is a crew inside the cabs of our apparatus, they are exposed to each other, even if they have donned masks. While I support the ideas and concepts of the drive-by, such activities are ultimately a local call by departmental leadership. With the advent of social media, remember that if you do one of these events but not another, the publicity might not be positive. Make the decision, stand by it, and share it publicly.
As noted above, firefighters need to look out for each other, our members and even our leaders. Our leaders, chief, president, and head commissioners are sending the messages, setting up the policies, and looking out for all the members. Digesting all the information, reviewing it against the department’s response protocols, writing the messages and answering the calls…all of this takes much out of a leader. Who is checking on them? Did someone ask how “they” are holding up? Are their families okay? Are they working and collecting a paycheck? Ask them in person. Send them a text. Let them vent about the stress and nuttiness we are all living through. That check-in will show that the care and concern is a two-way street. They need and deserve the same support that they give the members of their departments.
Live training and meetings had to be placed on hold. Department and company business carried on—paying bills, writing reports, and planning behind the scenes—but the hand-on/in-person events were placed on hold. Training is an important part of the fire service and we must continue it even during the difficult times. What many departments started to do is send links to reputable sources such as Fire Engineering and their training sites for “drills.” Online videos would be sent out with some additional discussion and information. Many started to use online meeting sites to conduct meetings and drills. While never a good as a true hand-on drill, these remote online drills work well for discussing the ongoing changes due to the pandemic, new equipment, and talking-based drills. These online drills allowed members to continue training, but also placed us in the same virtual “room.” We could see each other’s faces, there were some comments and ribbing, and it was good to see each other. The face-to-face aspect of such meetings, despite being virtual, improved everyone’s outlook. We were together. We were safe. This training continued throughout the pandemic. The online training can and should continue into the future. If there is a need for a sit-and-listen drill, video it, and offer it online for those who cannot attend that night.
In the end, once this is all over, celebrate. When those stresses, restrictions, and fights are over, do a company or department celebration. Party. Go to a sporting event. Barbeque. Block party. It really does not matter what you do but do something. Have all the members and families come together to celebrate, reflect, and be proud of how your firefighters responded. This should happen after any event such as COVID-19, natural disaster, or instance in which your department went above and beyond.
TIM PILLSWORTH has been active in the volunteer fire service since 1986 is a firefighter/EMT with the Washingtonville (NY) Fire Department and a past chief and life member of the Winona Lake (NY) Engine Company. He has presented at FDIC International and at other local and regional conferences on engine company operations and leadership in the volunteer fire service. He authored and coauthored many articles on PPE, volunteerism, engine company operations, attack system flow testing, and volunteer fire department management and planning. He is the author of the PPE chapter in Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II. He is a project engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.