Features, Fire EMS

COVID-19: New Tools for a Different Type of Response

Firefighter with COVID-19 particles floating around
Photo courtesy Rita Reith, Indianapolis Fire Department.

By Dennis Reilly

In the not-too-distant past, fire service leaders talked about a pandemic response but did not picture themselves in the middle of one. Fast forward a few months and every fire department in the United States is trying to figure out the best approach to this issue. There are not a wealth of real-world experiences that fire service leaders can use to tailor their approach to this complicated issue. Although our experience is somewhat lacking, the fire service needs to build on what we have already experienced. Here are some steps that can help your organization navigate their way through this overwhelming event.

Dealing with COVID-19 is a challenging task. Fire service leaders must accept the fact that this is really a new challenge. We cannot deal with a pandemic as we would with a large structure fire or a campaign type wildland event. COVID-19 is forcing us to expand our vision and scope. We must interact with agencies and individuals with whom we don’t regularly interact. Simply adding blocks to an organization chart does not qualify as interacting. We need to spend time talking with people, listening to their concerns and capabilities, and understand how the pandemic impacts their service delivery. Simply adding an ICS – 214 to the incident action plan (IAP) will not guarantee effective operations and service delivery.

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COVID-19 has taxed all our systems and we cannot negate the impacts on our departments. As challenging as these times are, fire service leaders must remain focused on all the critical service delivery functions. Just because we are dealing with COVID-19 does not mean we are not going to respond to kitchen fires and car accidents. Leadership at the operational level must ensure that the people in their command are not neglecting one aspect of service delivery just because we are in the midst of a pandemic. Our community expects us to be able to deal with all their emergencies, not just the most talked about one.

Leaders must balance the needs of their personnel against the needs of the organization. There is no doubt our operating forces will be under great stress. As important as their needs are, we must also maintain some semblance of organizational momentum. If your department was researching high-rise operations and equipment before COVID-19, the high-rise fire problem is not going away just because of COVID-19. New equipment that is received must be inventoried and placed on the apparatus, not sit in boxes on the apparatus floor for weeks. Training must continue. Reports still need to be done. The critical aspects of long-range planning must continue. We must be sensitive to needs of our members and the impacts the virus is having on them. As leaders, we must also remember that if we allow our organizations to come to a standstill because of COVID-19, we may never fully regain the organizational momentum that is the critical element in meeting the needs of the future.

The old saying that all emergencies begin and end at the local level still applies for our COVID-19 response. We must also remember that the pandemic is for most if not all organizations a new and different creature to manage. There is a tremendous amount of information from a multitude of national and worldwide sources that relate directly to service delivery at the local level. Do not allow yourself to silo your response, A 30,000-foot view is critical in ensuring that decision makers stay abreast of the latest developments and technologies associated with COVID-19. Good decisions require good information and that information might be a byproduct of research done halfway around the world. If there was ever a time when fire service leaders to be engaged outside their normal sphere of influence, now is that time. It is highly advisable to assign one of your staff to monitor outside sources. Pick someone you can trust. There is so much coming out this person will need to be able to filter out the nice-to-know as opposed to the need-to-know information.  

The management of this type of event will be an ongoing task. Leaders should monitor their actions and be alert for any indication that their actions are not meeting the needs of the incident. A red flag that indicates problems is the need to consistently circle back to issues or steps that have been taken. No one can see perfectly into the future. Sometimes actions will have consequences that are not apparent when a decision is made. If you find that going back and evaluating and modifying decisions and actions is become standard fare, the decision-making approach might need to be reworked. An honest appraisal can be painful, but now is not the time to let egos rule the day. After one or two times when you had to circle back, it might be a good idea to ask if anyone else saw the problem that you now must fix. If someone says yes, then maybe you should include them in the next decision-making process. No doubt hindsight is 20/20, but we all know the other old saying that goes along the lines of, “two heads are better than one”.

The response to a pandemic requires a highly skilled planning section chief (PSC). Even if your jurisdiction decides not to establish a formal incident management team, a PSC is vital. Think about it this way, a pandemic is probably the longest duration incident you have had to deal with, and the PSC is one who’s function it is to plan for the future. As I write this, most experts are forecasting impact of COVID-19 lasting until the end of the year or longer. Most fire service leaders are used to dealing with incidents that last hours, not months. Even those with exposure to long-term campaign incidents are not used to managing incidents that have the wide-ranging impact of COVID-19. Having a PSC who can detach from the day to day and forecast into the future is one way to avoid having to circle back to issues. The PSC is also a great resource to monitor the 30,000-foot view and provide the team with applicable and relevant information. A good PSC can help the leadership maintain operations and avoid being caught behind the power curve. If the PSC is simply the one who puts the IAP together, you have not given yourself the resource that is critical in staying ahead of the power curve.

Handling COVID-19 is a great opportunity to break out some of the incident management tools that we tend not to use on a regular basis. Opening an emergency operations center (EOC), designating command staff, and publishing an IAP are all tools that have some value in dealing with a pandemic. As important as these items are, I caution you not to do what I call “junk reps.” If you are going to staff your EOC, then staff it to the level that current situation requires. Give the availability of technology, the virtual EOC is a particularly good option. Using some type of video conferencing software, the key players can meet without exposing each other to the virus or using up valuable work time.  A red flag to watch for is as the EOC staff meets is: How often do people contribute to the conversation? If you see a pattern where one or more staff members have no input at your EOC meetings, that could be a sign that you have over staffed the EOC or you have not put the right people in the right positions. Either way, you are headed down the road to a dysfunctional team. In this scenario, the functions of the EOC become nothing more than a hoop people jump through or an appointment on their calendar. If you are going to produce an IAP, make sure it is done correctly. For most organizations, this will be their first attempt at building an IAP. The habits you develop now are prone to stay with you. The forms need to be complete and correct We build our capabilities in large part due to the quality of our reps. “Junk reps” will hurt us in the long run. All these items must be done correctly or you will just be building barriers to effective incident management.

Along the lines of “junk reps” you need to know when to disengage. If the situation is somewhat stabilized, it might be time to dial back some of your incident management strategies. You must remember that mental and physical fatigue are real issues. Maybe one of the reasons why your management team has little to say at meetings is that there is little to report. The military uses terms such as ops tempo and battle rhythm to identify the level of sustained activity a unit can endure. At some point the military will send front line units to the rear for rest and refit. It is advisable to monitor your local situation and, if conditions permit, disengage when this will not compromise safety. You can always use e-mail distribution groups to push out information. It is human nature to become somewhat dull if one is subjective to repetitive actions that do not produce results. COVID-19 is an ongoing critical event and leaders must take steps to keep their people alert and engaged for those periods when the community is threatened and we need to be at our best.

The importance of monitoring the situation and preparing ahead of time for anticipated issues is vital for the safety of our responders and our communities. As much as I think it is important to disengage when the threat level drops down, it is equally important to be able to respond in a timely manner when the threat ramps up. What is your organization doing about stockpiling supplies for a possible resurgence of COVID-19? We can debate the possibility of this happening all day long, but do we really want to get caught in a situation of a low supply of personal protective equipment and a high demand for its use? What type of conversations are we having with our automatic and mutual aid partners about contingencies should there be a run of COVID-19 in one’s organization? I have heard people say: “If it hits us, it will probably hit all around us too.” I agree with the statement, but I also think that the time this occurs is not the time to be figuring out a strategy. We need to look at probabilities to identify strategies before we are at the crisis point. We must be creative; COVID-19 will throw us curve balls that we might never have considered. Dealing with a pandemic is not the time to engage in the silo mentality. These are just a few examples of the forward-leaning thinking that fire service leaders must embrace now to avoid a disaster in the future.

COVID-19 and the intricacies of dealing with a pandemic have presented many problems that most fire service leaders never imagined. Our approach to this issue must be comprehensive, well thought out, and forward leaning. Even if COVID-19 just goes away (which I think is highly unlikely), the threat of a pandemic is something the fire service must add to our list of problems the community will look for us to solve.

Dennis Reilly is a 44-year veteran of the fire service and is currently a retired fire chief. Dennis has worked in a variety of organizations advancing from firefighter to fire chief.  He was one of the original members of the New Jersey Urban Search & Rescue Task Force 1 and deployed to Ground Zero on 9/11. He holds an MPA from Penn State and is a CFO. In addition to his fire service career, Dennis is a combat veteran of the US Army and worked as a private security contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan.