Moving past COVID-19: When is it time to get back to normal operations?

Key areas offer signs that change is afoot, while other areas remain restricted

To say things have been hectic for the fire service since February is an understatement. But ever the optimist, I am beginning to see signs that we are getting our operations back closer to normal.

Here are the key areas where I’m seeing clues that we’re moving past the initial trauma and logistical nightmares associated with the pandemic.

COVID-19-focused meetings

If you haven’t begun coming out from under your department’s COVID-19 isolation, now may be the time to at least consider what your department’s plan looks like for this transition.
If you haven’t begun coming out from under your department’s COVID-19 isolation, now may be the time to at least consider what your department’s plan looks like for this transition. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

What was once a daily 9 a.m. Microsoft Teams meeting transitioned initially to three times per week and is now just once per week.

These daily meetings with our administrator and his staff, all the department heads, and other key officials looked at such areas as essential staffing, COVID-related emergency calls and, when possible, case-tracking by neighborhood zip codes. This meeting also served a clearinghouse for any departmental operational issues, plus messages we needed to emphasize to the public via social media.

This meeting is now more of a recap of the past week’s numbers, plus a time to look ahead as departments begin to re-open everything from hiking trails and park concerts to the senior and community centers later this month.

[More on meetings: Turning a pandemic negative into a technology positive]

Recruit and member training

Our department will soon restart our recruit class. This group of about a dozen young men and women started after the first of the year, with the class suspended in March. The recruits had completed the Firefighter I portion of their training, and in the early stages of COVID-19, a decision was made that it was best for them and the instructors to halt the class.

The class will pick up with the Firefighter II classes and then move into EMT training for those who do not have that requirement, and eventually, these recruits will move into a paramedic class.

While some departments around the country continued with recruit classes, both our instructors and medical staff felt that with the unknowns of COVID-19, it would be hard to provide the proper distancing and still maintain the teamwork setting required for the recruits to progress into the objectives of a more rigorous hands-on Firefighter II curriculum.

I enjoy being a part of the recruit class process, both as an occasional lecturer and as one of several live-fire burn instructors needed during that portion of the recruit class to meet Firefighter II requirements. It is also timely, as during these interim months, the department had several scheduled retirements with some others coming soon. Assuming they can continue to meet the state and local requirements, it will be good to have them onboard.

As for member training, it’s been either virtual or based on single-company operations for months now. The good news: Multi-company and even joint training with other departments appears to be within a few weeks of returning for us. This allows for a greater degree of confidence among the departments that multi-jurisdictional responses will have the expected coordinated outcomes.

[Read next: How firefighters can continue to train in a time of social distancing]

CRR comeback

Community risk reduction (CRR) is also getting ready for a comeback. Smoke detector installations, classes in fall prevention for seniors, and classroom safety and prevention programs are among those areas planning to restart shortly in our community. The combination of in-person and virtual classrooms for students attending the same school, along with the requirements for social distancing, continues to be a challenge. One possible solution being considered may be to present these programs virtually for students both at home and in the classroom simultaneously.

Another bright spot, however, is that through a partnership with our local health department, we are about to pilot a community program where an individual will be hired as a full-time CRR coordinator to oversee all of our safety programs in a multitude of disciplines. The coordinator will oversee programs in fire safety, medical first, such as CPR and “Stop the Bleed,” senior safety in both fall prevention and proper use of medications, water safety, and other topics, such as safe driving, personal awareness, and family disaster readiness. This pilot program begins in the fall and is hopefully planned to run for two years.

[Learn more: CRR challenges and opportunities presented by COVID-19]

Personnel infection rates

Thus far during the COVID-19 pandemic, our department has not suffered a large percentage of personnel who have tested positive or have been exposed to the point of having to self-quarantine while awaiting the results of testing. Our numbers have been at most two or three members at a time, which equated to be approximately 1% of the staff.

Many other departments have not been as fortunate, as I know of one department that lost approximately 15% of their staffing almost simultaneously, and had a very rough two-week period with staffing issues. Hopefully that phase of the virus has passed for all of us, but what still remains is the need for immediate testing for anyone directly exposed, or possibly identified in the tracking of a confirmed COVID patient.

[More on staffing: COVID-19 staffing impacts: How first responders can continue to serve]

Still on hold

Despite what I see as these lights at the end of the tunnel, there are still several actions that remain in place in many areas to maintain health and safety protocols:

  • All outside visitors to the stations or any of our other facilities, including the fire headquarters area, are prohibited.
  • The daily mandatory screening for symptoms that includes a temperature check of individual members remains in effect as they report to duty.
  • The use of some forms of medical PPE, especially on suspected COVID cases, and for any patient at a known address provided by our health department daily to our dispatch center. One downside of this patient care is that it sometimes seems impersonal, but is necessary for some cases.

Additionally, at our department, several special projects, including a complete review of our Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) and Emergency Operations Center (EOC), were placed on hold from March until earlier this month. Several of our partner agencies were as busy as us with COVID-19 related issues, and had just as strict or stricter guidelines regarding outside interactions. Despite those delays we were able to nearly complete our update not only of the 15 EOP annexes recommended by FEMA, but also to recommend upgrades for the EOC and gather additions to our resource and personnel lists.

The bottom line on forging ahead

If you haven’t begun coming out from under your department’s COVID-19 isolation, now may be the time to at least consider what your department’s plan looks like for this transition. The steps and speed with depend on several factors, including your community’s infection and R-naught rates. We’re all hoping to get back to “normal” and work toward a time when our department and our fire stations are the centerpiece of our communities – we just need to be smart about how and when to reopen the doors.

Editor’s Note: How has your department handled reopening efforts or other actions as cases decline in the area?

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