Control What You Can Control
By Tim Pillsworth
In my previous article in June 2020, I thought that perhaps most of the COVID-19 outbreak could/would be controlled and we would be heading back to some form of normalcy sooner rather than later. Well, I was incorrect on those thoughts. As 2020 continues, the issues with coronavirus continue in a large portion of country. To add to the confusion and stress, we have had civil unrest in some cities that has degenerated into anarchy. On the news these days we find more reported COVID cases, shootings in our cities, and a complete loss of civility. There is no compromise to be found on social media; there is one side or the other, and if you are on the “incorrect” site, you are ridiculed. There’s daily stress from this situation, and if feels as if you are on a runaway train in a tunnel and that light at the end is the not the exit but a different train coming at you.
My family’s COVID experience started on Monday 9 March when we received a call from our older son saying he had to be picked up at college, that night, due to COVID. We expected that his spring break just started a week early and he would return in two weeks. As the week progressed, our high school son had one lacrosse practice canceled. Then a second, a game…. Learning from home started for both. Well, we all know how the rest of the school year went for our kids. We have been very lucky to the point where we have jobs and continue to be paid in full. My wife has been teleworking and I have been going into work each day as an essential employee. We know some family and friends who have not been working or had their pay cut. We are some of the lucky ones.
With those who have children in some type of school setting, the level of difficulty greatly increased. This varies by age group. For younger children, the ideas of day care, teaching, and keeping busy are similar to and yet very different from that of a high school student in more advanced classes. In the latter case, parents often cannot serve as the teacher, nor even assist with online learning such as science labs.
For some, either our spouse or ourselves have been placed out of work for prolonged periods of time with more questions than answers about when we could return. While out of work, the bills do not stop coming. We may go into work concerned about keeping our families and ourselves as safe as possible even though we don’t full understand the illness plaguing our communities.
Through all this, all of us in the emergency services, whether fire or EMS, volunteer or paid, we feel the confusion, frustration, and stress of not being able to control much if anything at all. Being in a fire department, we are planning freaks. We preplan buildings with high hazards, box-alarm assessments, and preset strike and task forces for large-scale incidents. We prepare prior to weather events like tropical on winter storms to make sure our response is ready. Now add in our ever-changing response protocols the additional protection for all members. In some places, we must also be preparing for civil unrest, sometimes on account of local rumors, threats, or posts on social media. The thought and even fear for our communities continues to grow. When it comes to civil unrest in Small-Town USA, we must be cognizant that even though we are not the “Big City,” violence and vandalism can and will happen. For example, even our local 9/11 memorial was vandalized.
If there are any takeaways from the past four months, one may be that we cannot control many of the events around us. What can a bunch of planners do? Control what you can. I used that simple sentence to my son in college while he was working through the mess of COVID-19 and difficulties with college, work, the loss of his summer job that he loved, and the like. He needed to figure out what he has under his direct control.
I am by no means a social worker or psychologist, nor do I have any formal training for that matter. Experience and age has shown me that sometime we must learn the hard way to cope with life’s challenges. Between living and working through parents with cancer for many years and serving as a youth coach, scoutmaster, and volunteer fire chief, I have picked up things that are my triggers. I have also found some ways to cope. If you are having troubles due to what is going in the world/your life now or at any time and you cannot control them, speak to someone. Get some professional help. It is not a sign of weakness to ask for help; it is a sign of strength and taking control.
There are a few strategies that work for me—not all the time, but most of the time. What can I control? What can I do or accomplish? Make a “to do” list; the “things to do” can be anything. Find what you can do and check it off the list. I recommend listening to the speech or reading the book Make Your Bed by William McRaven, a retired four-start admiral. Remember that the simplest of tasks such as making your bed ranks as an accomplishment. Complete the little things in life and build from there.
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Each day at work, one of the first things I do is make the list for the day. This consists of a simple steno pad with the date at the top, I list the items I need to complete. A simple dash at the start of the item allow you to “check it off.” If you just started it, circle it. Make a daily or a weekly list of things you want to accomplish. List all the tasks that you want to complete, and they do not all have to be for the fire department. Once complete, cross them off the list. It offers a sense of accomplishment, albeit a small one, but a sense of accomplishment nonetheless.
This can carry over for your work life well into your fire department and home lives. What needs to be completed? What do you have under your control? Write them down. Make each task singular. Complete a truck check. Complete a drill plan. File that stack of paperwork that has been on your desk for weeks. It does not have to be some large complex task to start. Just start a task, complete it, and check it off. At the end of the week/day, look at all the things you completed and had control over. If you continue to use the same steno pad, you will have pages (days/weeks) of accomplishments to look at. This will help you gain a sense of your accomplishments. While it might seem like a small thing, many small things grow into something large over time.
One great stressor that many talk about is the increasing social media overload. Ironically, you may be reading this online, perhaps have received notification from a social media site. So, want to reduce stress? Limit time on social media and the all the sites that are pushing agendas. Any and all agendas will tap into emotions, almost by design; indeed, social media algorithms elevated stories and posts that gain reactions, whether positive or negative. You may find yourself spending an hour viewing “official” report and facts without any sense of whether they are true or not. Often they deal with things that are, by definition, outside of your control, and they will often create unease and mental chaos. Extend your learning with regard to your areas of concern. Read reports on any topic in the fire service: nozzles, air movement, VES, building construction, and the like. Increase your fire service knowledge now. It will pay itself back tenfold in the future.
Start a new habit. No, not smoking…but a good habit. Reading a book each night, taking a nightly walk, or working out. Habits take time to take hold. It may take three weeks or more for a daily task to truly take hold and become a habit. Once a healthy habit exists, it can continue for years to come. Start out small; you don’t need an entire list of things. Do one or two small things. Make a plan with your spouse or someone from the firehouse. It is much easier when you have some help.
Social distancing may be a misnomer; we need physical distancing during COVID-19, but we don’t need to isolate ourselves from society. We have been in some level for weeks or months, unable to go out to dinner, sporting events, graduations, and vacations. Seeing our friends and families has been challenging. With things “opening up” in some areas of our country, we can start to be social again. Make some time to be social again; it might just be eating out or small gatherings and events. Consider physical distancing and mask use as needed.
Many departments have been able to start in-person training and events once again. Attend as many as you can, not only for the training and skills that might have slipped but for the social aspects. Keep the groups small and controlled but remember that seeing our second families improves our mental well-being.
Look towards the future once we are back to normal—not the “new normal” but normal as we know it. Make plans for a party or celebration of some type to commemorate being able to survive COVID19. Get the ideas together and once the time is right, set the date and enjoy. We have all earned it. This too shall pass.
I wish there was some great knowledge or person that could tell us when things will calm down and return to normal, but we know that will not happen. We must continue to work through these difficult times. Look out for yourself and each other. Take back control of your life at work, at the firehouse, and at home. Start small and understand that although we cannot control everything, we get there eventually.
Stay strong and stay calm. That is what we do.
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.