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Company officer challenges in the era of COVID-19

Now is the time to focus on training, communication and restorative support


Company officers must sustain the readiness and morale of their small teams, and they are also on the front lines of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis in the community.

Photo/John Odegard

These are challenging and dangerous times, and firefighters are in the thick of it. All firefighters are vulnerable to exposure, infection and transmission of communicable disease. All department members must deal with the pressure of increased call loads and demands from the community. Chief officers are tasked with planning and budgeting for new and increased response capability.

There are also specific challenges for company officers during this time. Company officers must sustain the readiness and morale of their small teams, and they are also on the front lines of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis in the community.

What can company officers do to best meet the increased demands currently on them?

First, they must be vigilant when it comes to station and scene hygiene and personal protection. Stations and gear must be maintained at an exacting level of cleanliness. All members must be held to high standards when it comes to the use of safety equipment and following protocols on scene.

But don’t ignore other important functions that company officers must fulfill in order to maintain the best readiness possible among their crews. Specifically, company officers can focus on three key goals during this time: training, communication and restorative support.

1. Keep up on training

Keeping a normal training schedule might be difficult right now. Fire crews are busy with other things and may be constrained by community guidelines during the virus emergency. But it is critical to keep crews current on training, even with the challenges. It’s always good to combine intellectual stimulation with physical activity through hands-on training, but don’t overlook the possibilities even if you are confined to quarters.

If you are limited to in-house training, try not to bore your crew by just doing routine review of book-based topics. A lot of what fire crews are doing these days is tedious, in terms of constant cleaning and decontamination. Don’t make training tedious as well.

Be creative. For example, instead of just doing standard preplanning, mix it up with some “What If” scenarios. Choose a serious incident where your company would be first due – say, a plane crash at the municipal airport in your district. You’ve probably already preplanned that possibility. Now mix it up. While going through the basic response protocol, continue to ask “What If …?” at different junctures of that response. What if a key bridge is out during response? What if your radios fail? What if the second-due companies are called to another incident at the same time? What if a key piece of equipment malfunctions when you arrive? What if someone tells you that there were two people in the plane, but you find only one?

Use your imagination. This activity can be a collaborative discussion or a round-robin type of activity, where one person answers the previous challenge and then gets to create a new one for the next person. The result is a stimulating discussion that is also useful for thoroughly preplanning the hazards you may face.

2. Open the lines of communication

Communication is crucial during this difficult time, not just about official topics but also on a more casual basis. Be watchful that crewmembers are not isolating themselves with personal devices. Create opportunities for conversation over shared meals or snacks. Make sure your crew knows you are available to talk one-on-one, especially if you are noticing signs of stress in individuals.

Every person on the fire department has personal challenges that they may or may not be talking about, and many of those challenges are exacerbated with the COVID-19 crisis. Crewmembers might be struggling with childcare, worrying about a sick relative or panicking over their partner’s lost income. As their company officer, you are not responsible for resolving these issues, although passing along resources is always helpful. Just providing a safe and open channel for people to talk about what’s on their minds can be very therapeutic.

3. Take care of each other

Finally, company officers should be mindful that their crewmembers are rested and able to do restorative activities in the fire station. Naps are good. Spending time outside in the sunshine – good. Share meals. Break out the board games. Support healthy physical activity, not just routine PT but perhaps something new, such as yoga. Be open to suggestion.

Company officers must also remember to take care of themselves, too. They are not just leaders of the team in their decisions and direction, but particularly in their example. Eat a healthy diet and get enough sleep. Attend to the needs of the crew and always be part of that crew but take time for yourself as well. Understand the real stresses you are facing in your life and get the support you need, through time with friends and family, healthy activities or outside support. As a company officer, part of your job is knowing what resources exist to solve problems. Use that knowledge to help yourself as well.

First-line support

This crisis will pass, but until it does, there will be tough days ahead. Company officers are in a unique position to do a lot of good as the first-line source of support and leadership during difficult times.

Editor’s Note: What advice do you have for company officers during this unique time in fire service history? Share in the comments below.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.