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COVID-19: How leaders can best serve through the new unknown

Key principles to help you manage and support members through COVID-19 pandemic


Company officers should ensure that all our members received chief-level communications and understand the expectations.

Photo/Chad Costa

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of information related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Daily updates, conference calls, websites and social media information are filling up our calendars and inboxes. It’s been extremely challenging keeping up with this ever-changing environment.

As leaders, this is our time to lead. This is what this job is all about, as we are the protectors and decision-makers for our organization. If we fail now, our members and their families could face unnecessary consequences.

Uncertainty may be the hallmark of this pandemic, but a few fundamental leadership principles and ideas can help you lead through this trying time.

Stay healthy and engaged

Leaders must be fully engaged, on- and off-duty. Taking time off is important, but make sure that you set aside some time to catch up when you’re back on the clock. The information is coming at such a fast pace that disengaging for too long may require quite a bit of time to catch up.

If you need to break away, ensure that you have subordinate leadership who can step in and deliver the important updates. This subordinate leadership will also help with getting you up to speed once you return.

Communicate to soothe fears and inspire

Be transparent and ensure that all members hear one voice. Leaders must understand that this is a scary time for many of their members. In addition, your members have family at home worried about the health and safety of their loved ones. These fears and uncertainties are adding to the challenge of leadership.

As I walked through the superstore on a day off, I witnessed hysteria. People were running for toilet paper and supplies. This is reality, and we must remember that although we are first responders and we have dealt with emergencies and unknowns before, this concern is within our members as well. To help combat this, leaders must be present and deliver direct messages to their members.

Information is key. When your members feel that their safety is the top priority and they understand your expectations of operational and PPE procedures, they will be onboard as a team and carry out the mission. Your direct message and plan for their safety will help ease concern and allow them to objectively focus on themselves, their crews and their families.

Solicit input from all members

Because this challenge is new to many leaders and organizations, it is imperative that leaders have an open-door policy with all members. Open-door policies should always be in place; however, this is different. We truly need to solicit any ideas and answer as many questions as possible for all members.

I’ve found that some of the best ideas have come from our entry-level members. Many members have contacts at other agencies that may have already tackled some of your challenges. Utilizing all your members will help create that team environment and show that you’re all in this together.

Practice efficient, effective messaging

The amount of email communication entering your inbox is, and will continue to be, overwhelming. As leaders we need to read all the information so that we are clearly informed on the latest and greatest information. Remember, however, that most of our members only read a few sentences of our normal emails. Forwarding lengthy emails with lots of good information may be counterproductive to most of our membership.

It is important that we deliver a personal message with only the imperative information attached. A quick summary helps by explaining to your membership what is included in the email. When members can quickly read your personal message and understand what lies within the message, they will likely take the time to read all the content.

Company officers should also ensure that all our members received the information and understand the expectations.

A safety stand-down for all companies should occur on a regular basis. I recommend a daily conversation as the intel and expectations are changing rapidly. Don’t allow one of your members to ignore the seriousness of this pandemic. We all need to protect each other as losing multiple members to isolation can cripple an agency.

Reach out to the community

Social media and technology-driven messages are also key tools during this emergency. Your constituents need to see your face and hear from the leaders of the organization. The people we serve need to understand that we may be pulling back, but we are not shutting down.

The challenges that your organization face are nowhere near the challenges that lay within your community. People are scared, tired and may be without the normal resources they are used to having. We are the last line of defense and showing that leadership and passion will soothe some of the fears.

Transparency about what new protections and actions we are taking are important, but simply knowing we are there for them will instill confidence and lessen fear. The general public deserves the information, and we need to be there to help.

Partner with other first responders

Fire departments and police agencies have always worked side by side. This is a time when that partnership needs to become even stronger. We should be doing daily conference calls and ensuring that we are all looking out for the overall mission.

Agencies should be networking with other agencies because many of us are facing the same issues. What to do with exposed members, PPE shortages, food and station supplies, linen needs, cleaning supplies and many other things that challenge our logistics and response capabilities. By attacking this challenge together, we increase our bandwidth and improve our chance of finding a real solution that works for all.

We also need to collectively plan and prepare because the odds are that we will all deal with some level of exposure. Re-inventing the wheel is not an option when we are stressed for time, and collectively working together will produce our best results.

Plan ahead

As with a fast-moving wildland incident, we as leaders need to be preparing for the unknown and staying in front of this pandemic as much as possible.

Thinking and planning two or three steps ahead will keep your membership on their toes and your team will be prepared when your triggers points happen. Staffing plans that are flexible and allow for time off during our down times and upstaffing when call volume increases will best prepare your work force. Transporting agencies should be planning to prioritize ambulance staffing and may have to sacrifice engine staffing if the EMS system gets overloaded for medical calls.

Regional decision-making amongst leaders about sharing resources and personnel should be happening now, so that we are ahead of it when we lose members to isolation or quarantine. All these moves will better prepare your organization and instill trust that we are prepared for the worst.

Support your members

Department leaders need to immediately engage their peer support team and ensure all members understand the availability and capabilities of your department employee assistance programs (EAPs). We are entering a time where all our members are going to be struggling. Whether that struggle involves work or something outside of work, everyone is affected by this pandemic.

We have these programs for a reason, and it’s imperative that we utilize and encourage their use. Our people are all we have, and they need to be the top priority. I fear that this may be the most difficult challenge over the next few weeks as the restrictions tighten and even more families are affected. The stress of dealing with this emergency on top of everyone’s life stressors will strain us all.

We will need help, whether mentally or physically. We need to prioritize our members and know that we are going through this unknown time together. One team, including our first responder partners and fire department cooperators, working together to protect our members, their families and the people we serve. Together we will get through this unknown, and together we will all be stronger.

Chad Costa is assistant chief with the City of Petaluma (California) Fire Department. With 20 years of fire service experience, Costa has worked in a variety of organizations, including the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), rural districts, semi-rural districts and a city. He is the technology and communications battalion chief and a division group supervisor on California Interagency Team 5. Costa has a bachelor’s degree in emergency services management and a certificate in homeland security.