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The bigger ‘What if …?’: How to answer COVID-19 staffing questions

Steps your department can take now to prevent disruption from sudden personnel or staffing changes


The best time to be thinking about such “what-ifs” is long before you need to call on that flexibility among your crews.

Photo/John Odegard

In response to my recent column “Company officer challenges in the era of COVID-19,” a colleague encouraged a follow-up focusing on an extension of our “What if …?” statements: “What if the engineer gets ill? Who steps in? What role do they play? What authority goes with their new (hopefully transient) responsibility? What if a company officer has to self-quarantine? Who does what?”

Concerns for flexibility and transferability of skills among the crew are a real issue right now within fire departments. Some organizations have seen many first responders be exposed or infected, with dozens suddenly off sick or in quarantine.

How do departments and crews pick up the slack and adapt to this new reality?

Cross-training is a start

Some fire departments have always made it a point for individual members to be cross-trained and prepared to take on new roles. Firefighters are trained as drivers, and company officers may be able to act as battalion chiefs. In most cases, these additional roles required specific training and even certification before individuals may take on new responsibilities.

Additionally, many departments cross-train functionally beyond suppression, like fire crews trained to perform inspections.

But other fire departments may be much more compartmentalized. Firefighters do firefighter stuff, chiefs do their thing, and there is little crossover. There may be even less intersection among different branches of the organization: prevention, suppression, dispatch, public education, EMS and fire.

That level of specialization has some benefits, especially on larger departments that have designated special teams. But in these unpredictable days, it may be good to look at some alternatives.

Understanding the full picture of the job

As a company officer, how much does your crew know about what you do? Of course, they know much of what you do on emergency scenes, as they are there beside you. How much do they know about the rest of your job? Are they familiar with the resources you routinely access for various types of response? Do they know how to write reports? What do they know about the administrative side of your job – ordering supplies, tracking training and licensing requirements, planning?

Likewise, if you are a battalion chief, how much do your company officers know about the full responsibilities of your position? Think about how much you didn’t know when you first took the position. If you and all those in your position were suddenly off the job because of COVID-19, who would step in to fill your role, and what would those people need to know to be able to keep things running smoothly?

The best time to be thinking about such “what-ifs” is long before you need to call on that flexibility among your crews. But there is no time like the present to start. What can you do right now to prevent disruption from sudden personnel or staffing changes?

Two tips for preventing staffing disruption

There are two main approaches that can help.

First, those in specific positions or roles can create an “Everything You Need to Know But No One Ever Told You” guide to what they do. Such notes do not need to be exhaustive or redundant to what already exists. Instead, encourage people to document tips and tricks, inside knowledge, and proven workarounds for common problems. This type of knowledge-sharing is empowering and useful at any time, but particularly right now.

Everyone would be included in such an effort, from the top chiefs to the newest firefighters. Are you the person who usually fills air bottles? What do others need to know about this system that you have learned from experience? This endeavor can and should be collaborative. Everyone on the department has some knowledge and experience that others don’t have but could be beneficial. Encourage the sharing of such information for the common good and safety of all.

Second, make professional development for all members a constant priority and organizational value. Some firefighters will choose to be firefighters for a career, others may move to company officer and stay there. But just because someone may never promote to chief or officer does not mean that person should be uninformed about what other positions require.

In times like these, organizations that embrace flexibility and individual empowerment will find themselves more able to adapt to change as well as diminish anxiety among their members. People will feel more confident about stepping up when needed, and others will have more trust in those who do fill in because they know they are prepared for that role.

Knowledge-sharing increases empathy and understanding

Another advantage to increasing knowledge of diverse roles within the department is that it increases understanding among members. It is easier to criticize and marginalize others (e.g. prevention vs. suppression, chiefs vs. firefighters, dispatch vs. operations) when you don’t really know the daily challenges the others face. More transparency and information sharing about what everyone really does will increase not only functionality but also empathy among department members. And that is something that we all need more of these days.

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.