COVID-19 concerns from the company officer perspective

Our organizations should have been better prepared for this pandemic

Terrorism, natural disasters and COVID-19. What do they all have in common? Over and over, these types of events highlight a lack of preparation on the part of many fire service and government agencies. They can also signal gaps in leadership and the toll that constant budget cuts take on a department’s ability to respond to the public’s needs and take care of its members.

If you really think about it, though, removing all your political affiliations and personal opinions about your department’s leadership, could it have gone much different? Could you have planned any better or different? I know I couldn’t have prepared for a nationwide pandemic. My bet is that you couldn’t either.

Voicing frustration

A medical worker performs a nasal swab on a firefighter.
A medical worker performs a nasal swab on a firefighter. (Photo/MCT)

While I am certainly no expert on pandemic management, I can still say that, from a company officer’s perspective, we should have been better prepared to take care of our own. Fire departments across the country are engaged in a reactive operation when they should have proactively planned for this well before it hit the United States. There have been past threats that should have prompted administrators to obtain stockpiles of PPE and create response protocols for infectious disease events.

As a company officer, I am frustrated and upset by our current situation. If you are wearing the same boots as me, responsible for the good men and women on your crew, you should be upset, too. You have every right. It takes significant planning to be truly prepared for an event like this – and we didn’t do it.

PPE supply concerns

My experience over the past few weeks has been playing constant catch-up. Memos, emails and tons information came raining down from above about the disease and precautions and actions to take when dealing with a potential COVID-19 patient – all on day one of our initial experience with a patient that tested positive for COVID-19.

I have also experienced a sense of frustration when, in the same day, I could literally count on two hands how many N95 masks I had and how many protective gowns and glasses I had available to my crew. It was ultimately left to the individual company officers to call around and find out who had supplies available.

Our organizations simply never had enough PPE to begin with. This resulted in changes in response protocols midstream, not necessarily bad decisions, but ones that were driven by our reaction to a lack of preparation.

Financial and quarantine concerns

We’re also seeing a lack of leadership related to financial issues and quarantine protocols.

Until President Trump announced that COVID-19 testing would be free, individual firefighters exposed to the virus did not know who was financially responsible for the test expenses. Depending on a department’s political environment and even workers’ compensation issues, this is a legitimate concern for which many department heads could not provide a straight answer to their members.

Quarantining exposed firefighters and other first responders in a seedy hotel that typically charges by the hour and caters to mostly drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes – as one department is doing because they had no plan in place – is not a good idea.

I do, however, know and understand that when the federal government pulls the purse strings loose by announcing a federal disaster, commonsense says the budget concern becomes a non-issue and the cost of doing business correctly becomes a priority because the city will be refunded.

Additionally, I’m familiar with a situation in which one officer’s inaction that resulted in an additional exposure and an entire station of 12 being required to self-monitor for 14 days. The station was shut down for two hours and every member was ready to go home for self-induced quarantine. It took a shift commander, two medical directors and another company officer riding-up as the district chief to investigate the situation and determine the ramifications of one officer’s inactions and then decide how to proceed from there.

Bottom line: Fire department leaders should not do TV interviews telling the general public that we are prepared and handling the situation when members aren’t sure about testing or quarantine basics. Leadership needs to own this, learn from it and plan for the next catastrophic event.

Time to be proactive!

As we deal with this pandemic, poor leadership and a lack of preparedness will undoubtedly lead to additional exposures among our personnel and the spread of the virus. Take every precaution to protect yourself, your crew and your family.

As company officers, we are going to have to step up for our members and be as proactive as we possibly can.

Stay safe and keep your members safe.

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