This Virus Has Made Fools of Us All

Bobby Halton
Bobby Halton

Every now and then, our assumptions get challenged. Occasionally, this requires we conduct some minor tweaking as in moving a handline from one room or location to another to knock down some undetected fire. Sometimes, as we all have experienced, we are forced to abandon a strategy completely—say, when interior operations move to a tactical withdrawal. During these types of challenges, we use terms like switching from offensive to defensive; we closely monitor conditions and very deliberately and very swiftly change our posture, location, mindset, and methods. These types of events are interesting, and routinely our divisions of Advanced Hindsight Bias often arrive soon after to explain to everyone what we failed to do; what we should have done; and, naturally, why we are bad people, complacent, or just reckless.

Following these events, some of the participants, especially those at the high end of the dominance food chain, get nicknames: “Burn ’Em Down Bob” or “All Hands Harry.” Or, the event itself gets a nickname: “The FOOLS Fire” or “The Last Stand of the Preconnect.” But, if it was really special, the owner and the event become one: “Halton’s Last Stand,” “Jones’s Day Off,” or “Smith’s Doctrine” (albeit with no malice and the usual good-natured ribbing, as we all have participated in and experienced). We do so in a way to keep the lessons alive and to remind ourselves “There but for the grace of God go I.” Yep, didn’t see that coming.

During our recent COVID-19 experience, we had a lot of opinion shifting, advice changing, and some flat-out odd stuff to boot. In late February and early March, U.S. health officials, Dr. Fauci, and the U.S. Surgeon General Adams advised Americans not to wear masks; as a matter of fact, they cautioned against it and later reversed that advice. No longitudinal double-blind experiment was conducted; no “science” was discovered. They simply changed their opinions. They did not consult any data or do any science; nope, they just made a gut decision, maybe common sense, or maybe some other outside pressure coerced them. But they changed strategy. Oh, and wear masks to protect yourself from COVID-19 but sex with strangers is cool; yep, some of it was odd.

My friend Peter Prochilo is fond of saying, “This virus has made fools of us all.” Yep, sure did. But as the old saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” The French Maginot Line was a series of self-contained state-of-the-art forts so advanced that many were air-conditioned, had advanced creature comforts, and were built to such intense standards they still exist today. The forts were supported and opposed by many experts but, in the end, a former soldier of the trench warfare of World War II and French Minister of War Andre Maginot convinced the government to build the series of super forts to become known as the Maginot Line.

The reasoning behind the Maginot Line was straightforward: The French, whose population was half of Germany’s, were convinced the Germans would invade them again. Solid guess; there were lots of things Germany did not like in the way World War I was concluded. The line had a great concept behind it; the French called it la puissance du feu, the power of fire—intense, high-powered artillery dug in and fortified by tons of concrete and steel. Given previous experiences in the trenches of World War I, it was brilliant. As the saying goes, “Close, but no cigar.” The line was in France, only France; the Germans attacked through Belgium, outflanked the line, and made it useless.

So, it is August. Maybe we know lots more about lots of aspects of the COVID-19 virus. I expect we do. We should have replenished the ventilators, which we didn’t do after the SARS pandemic. Hopefully, we have plenty of personal protective equipment (PPE) stockpiled locally, because locally is all that matters. Hopefully, there will be no second wave, as some are predicting. If there is, we should have our systems and ourselves wrapped pretty tightly to address the issues. If no second wave comes, no problem; we can always use the PPE, and overstock ventilators can be used as need demands. What we must be careful of is assuming that the next pandemic will be the same as the last pandemic. That was Maginot’s assumption, but things changed; lots of things changed.

Every firefighter knows we overreact to unknown threats. That is a good thing that keeps us alive; underreact, and you are a footnote in history. When it comes to viruses, it gets interesting. We humankind have to keep our radar up because a really bad virus could be a true “existential threat”—not like the kind the vapid fools in our elite political class overuse but a true threat to the continuation of humanity. So, what we did this time may not be what we need to do next time. We cannot be outflanked, nor should we live in constant fear. This is not our first rodeo, as they say. Pandemics have been with us for a long time; we have lived through dozens in our lifetimes.

Capture all the best practices from this experience. Look hard at agencies that have succumbed to mission creep and fallen into pursuing ideology rather than what they were designed for. Don’t trust foreign governments, especially those who hate us. Don’t trust doomsday hacks like Neil Ferguson, whose bad math will be infamous for centuries. Listen to “experts,” but always trust your gut; expect positions to shift, shift with them, and don’t forget who we are—Americans; the world’s best shot at a better tomorrow; and, well, firefighters. We are the tip of the spear.

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