COVID-19: It’s not a house fire; it’s a conflagration

It’s time to get serious about long-term plans for navigating the pandemic


This is not your typical house fire that’s going to be over in 45 minutes. This is a global conflagration that will require extreme leadership. This will require individual responsibility to rise above self, partnerships and flexibility to rise above rule, and all of us to do more than we knew we could do.

As the COVID-19 situation unfolds around the globe, fire and EMS providers find themselves on the tip of the spear, at the epicenter of the response within their communities. Under the general lead of public health agencies, we are all charting new course maps forward.

Similar to what we see during hurricanes and snowstorms, we have witnessed amazing acts of neighbors helping neighbors and fire departments stepping up as they navigated the labyrinth of difficulties with this event. Yet we also see many more challenges than normal, like daily changes in information, guidance, recommendations and protocols. There are empty supply chains, a troubling lack of testing confirmations, organizational squabbles, and global effects that present many unfortunately predictable challenges.

Our challenge long term will be to figure out how to live Gordon Graham’s mantra, “If it’s predictable, it’s preventable.” Short term, we just have to figure out how to get to the other side.

We are NOT going to be able to get in front of the conflagration – it’s going to expand for weeks and will burn much more of our communities before we get control of it. As fire and EMS services, we must stop thinking like it’s just another house fire, mass casualty incident or heart attack. It is not.

What we should do – or not do – during the pandemic

We are all navigating the infectious control response challenges, searching for the lacking test results, obtaining proper PPE and focusing on general cleanliness, but what else can we do to support the effort? Lots.

Following is guidance for fire and EMS personnel about what to do – or not do – during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Training: Training is ALWAYS necessary; but there are many ways we can continue to conduct training in interim separation or isolation. If ever there was the time to embrace virtual training, this is it. Where practical training is necessary, small team and individual evolutions should be the key.
  • Business travel: Only travel out of your community for essential travel. An industry conference is NOT essential. I strongly encourage you reconsider any personal travel as well.
  • Public events: My department has canceled our participation in all public events, which includes canceling events in station and out.
  • Facility control: Shut the bay doors, lock the entry doors, and although it may seem ironic, as we normally preach community engagement, it is now time to keep as many unnecessary people out of our facilities as possible.
  • Rumor control: Your communities generally trust the fire service and listen to you. During public health emergencies, information doesn’t flow the same way it does for us normally. Unless YOU are a public health professional, the information does not originate from YOU. PLEASE don’t feed the rumor mill or find yourself “leaking” confidential information you might be on the inside of. This is not our time to talk.
  • Collaboration: The fire service has a strong history of cross-industry partnerships. Despite historical rifts between your EMS provider, public health or emergency management, now is the time to close those rifts and work together for your community’s sake.
  • Work from home: Yes, I know, firefighters and EMS personnel CAN’T work from home, but administrative personnel can. Figure out what has to happen to get your team working as virtually as possible.
  • Mental health: Take care of yourself and your people. Don’t leave them hanging, and if they’re quarantined or isolated, make sure someone on staff is checking in on them by phone routinely. Use the resources that are already available through critical incident stress management programs. If you don’t have access, find them – they are all over.
  • Budget big picture: You may not want to think about this now, but it is highly likely there will be fiscal challenges coming for many of us, especially smaller departments. Make sure you have someone looking at the bigger budget picture, as we prepare for the inevitable COVID-19 community economic impact.
As fire and EMS services, we must stop thinking of the pandemic as if it’s just another house fire, mass casualty incident or heart attack. It is not. (Photo/Getty Images)
As fire and EMS services, we must stop thinking of the pandemic as if it’s just another house fire, mass casualty incident or heart attack. It is not. (Photo/Getty Images)

Leadership by example

One of the newest phrases in our vast lineup of terms is social distancing – and it’s so much more than a buzz phrase.

Are you modeling the behavior? Like you, I watch the myriad press conferences with everyone crowding behind the podium to preach to us about social distancing, and the licking of the page-changing fingers by the federal official chiding us about touching our faces. Those aren’t the models we need to be.

Make sure you’re modeling the behavior you’re expecting others to follow, specifically staying six feet apart and in groups of 10 or less. Wash your hands with soap and water at all the obvious times, but just go ahead and wash them every time you pass a sink. Use door handles as little as possible, wipe down surfaces regularly with a disinfectant, and don’t crowd people into Grandma Jones’ house to help pick her up and put her back in bed. Cough into your arm, and just stay home if you can!

It’s time to get serious

There will undoubtedly be more sacrifice to come, but it is important to remember this will not last forever. It is time to take this seriously. We cannot allow the healthy and overly optimistic among us to doom the vulnerable.

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