Facing the New Normal

John K. Murphy

This past year has reset the “normalcy” of our work and personal lives and has reset those “normals” into “new normal” defined as: a current situation, social custom, etc., that is different from what has been experienced or done before but is expected to become usual or typical.[i]

In our profession, the new normal has the fire service dealing with a pandemic with a staggering death toll of Americans civilians and firefighters requiring masking, social distancing in the fire stations and a reduction in off duty contact. We have also been exposed to a vast number of infectious and contagious patients causing our firefighters to become sick and die. This year, the 38 firefighter’s deaths as of this article has 18 firefighters dying of Covid 19. We need to do a better job of protecting ourselves during this pandemic both on and off the job. Take the shot and protect those you love. 

We are now entering the debate of obtaining an immunization when offered. Is it a requirement of the job, an option or just good medical advice and practice? Your employer is making those hard decisions now with guidance from medical professionals, science, EEO and your attorney’s providing a legally and medically safe pathway for immunizations and immunities. I would expect to see mandatory immunizations for your departments with the exemption for religious or medical exemptions. Here is an excellent information worksheet provided by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) on the Covid 19 vaccine. [ii]

There appears to be a new societal antagonism towards uniformed personnel, especially the police with riots and civil unrest placing our personnel in harm’s way and we are being painted with the broad condemnation brush. Equipment is being damaged and in some cities apparatus and fire stations are being struck with gunfire or thrown debris and firefighters are injured. Many departments are now requiring firefighters wearing ballistic vests, self-defense classes, de-escalation techniques, training to deal with civil unrest and a more cautious approach to fires, EMS patients and citizens to reduce the numbers of assaults and injures incurred from those encounters.

On the wildland fire side, our “new normal” are larger more destructive wildland fires due to climate change (there I said it) that involves cool and dryer winters and hot and dryer summers, increased encroachment into the wilderness stressing the urban/wildland interface boundaries and a declining effort in forest management practices. There is an emphasis on the suppression side of the equation which becomes resource and staffing intensive.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there were about 57,000 wildfires in 2020 compared to 50,477 fires in 2019 with more than 10.3 millions of acres burned in 2020 compared with 4.7 million acres in 2019. [iii]  According to fire forecasters, 2021 wildland fires will be worse than 2020. In 2020 there was complete residential developments and towns destroyed by the fires with a loss of life and a major economic burden for those affected at the Local, State and National level. The expectation for 2021 is the fire problem is growing and getting worse. It seems like the “new norm” is to look to enhance forest practice management and less on the expensive suppression side.

We also have the “usual” litany “not the new normal” of social media gaffs resulting in terminations and embarrassment to the department and continuing discrimination against fellow firefighters of color and gender.

It is so easy to go onto your social media site and make bonehead declarations or statements and get terminated from your chosen occupation. Remember, NOT ALL SPEECH IS FREE. Hateful speech examples includes Chief Steven Jennings from Triangle Fire Department, writing on his Facebook account “Oh please come lay on the road in front of my driveway, you will quickly become a greasy spot in the highway.” From Arkansas, FF Stephen Melton writes “I can’t breathe” under a photo of a black baby in a mother’s womb with a noose around its neck and two firefighters from Mobile, Alabama writes “turn hoses on protesters” reminiscent of the Civil Rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s.

The fire service remains predominately white and male and the increase in litigation for discriminatory behavior is on the rise and the awards or increasingly larger awards to the plaintiffs. As I have said before, if we consider our service a “family” then we darn well better starting treating each other as such and knock off the discriminatory and destructive behavior.

Understand that the cases we see resolved in court or by settlement; the behavior started several years prior to the end point of litigation and those court decisions or settlements. Recently, a black Kansas City firefighter was subjected to racial discrimination then fired in retaliation for his complaints, a federal jury found in a trial that highlighted systemic racism in the department. The Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, was ordered to pay the firefighter more than $2.43 million for back pay, future pay and compensatory damages for his discrimination and retaliation claims.

Another recent example is in North Carolina where two firefighters in North Carolina have joined a growing number of U.S. female firefighters who are filing lawsuits alleging discrimination. The highest ranking female firefighter in Asheville, North Carolina, says she was repeatedly discriminated against because of her sex and fought to keep her job while battling breast cancer and the first female chief of a municipal fire department in the state says she briefly pondered suicide after years of sexual harassment.[iv] It is beyond a doubt that these women will win their court cases but at what cost?

Mass shootings are on the rise with the number of mass shootings this year at 147 events with number of victims killed or injured. This is “not the new norm” and these events places pressure on departments in responding to these events. These events are occurring in many areas of the country and it appears that from the small town to the large city this shooting epidemic is occurring. In order to keep our firefighters out of harm’s way, training is the important part of this response equation. Coordinating active shooter training with your local law enforcement and dust off those school shooting event plans off as we are seeing these events in all types of places from Spa’s in Atlanta to the FedEx event in Indianapolis and a series of daily smaller events with a mounting injury and death toll.

Embezzlement and theft are the old standby. The “new norm” indicates that you will be caught and prosecuted with a large fine, probable incarceration with the loss of employment. Theft has no place in the fire service and many organizations are placing those necessary checks and balances in place unfortunately after they are the victim of these criminal events. It is an illegal act and for example, Alabama and several other states, a public servant convicted of embezzling public funds not only faces fines and imprisonment but is permanently ineligible to be elected to the state legislature or hold any public office. Again, the underlying policy involves a special position of trust and heightened punishment for violating that trust. Most embezzlers are caught and face the criminal repercussions of their actions.

Child Pornography is not the new norm and not normal at all. However over the last several months has reared its ugly head. Recently, a former Delaware firefighter and Union President is facing up to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to possessing child pornography, an Odessa firefighter was arrested on a federal possession of child pornography charge and faces a 20 year sentence in prison and a search of the internet demonstrates numerous cases of firefighters, cops, teachers and others indulging in this illegal activity. A word to the wise, you will be caught, you will be fired and you will go to jail. If this is a problem for you, PLEASE get some help to stop this behavior.

Finally, words matter. In an article I wrote for Fire Engineering in 2018,[v] holds true today. Our words can comfort and express that we understand or that we “see” the other person in front of us. And of course, our words can do the opposite: they can hurt, isolate and make someone feel insignificant. For better and for worse, our words signal our values and beliefs. In our provision of caregiving to members of our community, words can heal, comfort and elicit empathy towards a grieving parent, child or even firefighter.

However there are times we experience vitriol directed to those who are “deemed different” from those extoling a viewpoint that is harmful, hurtful and possibly illegal. Using certain words to describe American immigrants either Asian, Black, Irish, Polish, German, or the ethnic immigrant groups and even our indigenous Native population that make up our great nation do a great disservice to those attacked and caused collateral damage to those witnessing or hearing those slurs and epithets.

My wise Irish mother once told me: “Think before you speak as words are like bullets – once released cannot be recalled and can do great harm.” Regret is a human characteristic and sometimes saying “I’m sorry” will not undue the harm caused by your words. Please use your words wisely.

I appreciate all that you do for America, your towns, cities, and rural communities. Follow the science and be a partner in the current fight against this Covid 19 pandemic. Please be careful out there and be safe.

[i] New normal | Definition of New normal at Dictionary.com

[ii] What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws | U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (eeoc.gov)

[iii] Insurance Information Institute (ww.iil.org)

[iv] US female firefighters fight discrimination with lawsuits – ABC News (go.com)

[v] https://community.fireengineering.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1219672%3ABlogPost%3A645063

JOHN K. MURPHY, J.D. M.S, PA-C, EFO, began his fire service as a firefighter/paramedic and retired as a deputy chief after 32 years of service. He is an attorney licensed in Washington whose focus is on firefighter health and safety, firefighter risk management, employment practices liability, policy, internal investigations, and expert witness litigation support.

This commentary reflects the views of the author and not necessarily the views of Fire Engineering.

It should not be construed as legal advice or counsel.

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