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Caring for our own during COVID-19: How to support members and their families

It’s important to prioritize family support, clear communication and health during stressful times


Boynton Beach firefighters ordered lunches from Mana Greek Bistro.

Photo/Shawn Weeks

Just a few days ago, I read that a major airline had received more than 4,500 requests for unpaid leave from flight attendants for the month of April.

The impact of COVID-19 is clearly being felt across the nation, but firefighters and EMS providers do not have the option to not be at work, responding to emergencies.

Although out world is changing by the minute, one thing that must remain steadfast is our delivery of the very best possible service that we can provide. With that comes the care of our most valuable resource – our firefighters.

Support crews through difficult times

We ask our department members to come to work and do their job just as they always have, but now there are other major factors likely serving as a distraction.

As personnel leave their families at home and enter into a completely different world than it was just a couple of weeks ago, they must have the support of the organization and also trust that leadership has their back. It is vital that fire chiefs demonstrate their commitment to the members by showing real leadership during this challenging time.

With recent COVID 19 exposures to firefighters, organizations have elected to quarantine or isolate the exposed members for the recommended 14 days. This puts a strain on staffing right out of the gate. Now other members must take over the required response area to cover the district. Most departments are at an “all hands on deck” status now and don’t have the extra staffing to call back members for overtime to fill those vacancies. So of course, it’s imperative that members be able to report to work and be fit for duty.

How can we help our people be comfortable and prepared to perform their job?

Many departments have established temporary policies that ask for members to stay inside fire stations and not interact with the public other than when required to by an emergency response. An entire shift confined to one building, whether it’s a 24/48 or 48/96 work shift, is a lot to ask of a person. The monotony of that alone will affect the individual and their performance.

Company officers must be cognizant of their crewmembers’ needs and prepare to keep them at the top of their game. This could be accomplished by conducting company-level training on specific skills that may be required due to the most recent changes in their response.

Also, consider that they will not have the ability to go out and obtain food while they are on shift. Organizations may want to contract with a local caterer to provide meals to firefighters while they are at work. A well-prepared meal could go a long way for morale and ensure that members are eating well to maintain a strong healthy immune system.

On the topic of wellness, this may be a good opportunity to have the local health department – or even the department’s medical director – evaluate members to ensure good well-being, both physical and mental.

Support members’ families, too

While we are asking that our firefighters report to work, what about their families at home?

As we all are aware many schools have closed, and families are dealing with children suddenly being at home. Many don’t have other family members who can take on those roles, and this can become a huge issue.

Departments should consider how to help with this if at all possible. Unanticipated childcare can not only be an inconvenience but an enormous financial burden as well. At times like this, our people do not need to stress over something that we can help each other with. Consider partnering opposite shift crewmembers who may be in the need of childcare while at work. They can take care of each other’s children during that time, and it would limit exposure to a large number of people.

Another item we have seen become an issue quickly is a mad rush on basic essential items. Those families who are able to stay at home may need some assistance in these areas. Could we put a group together to assemble gift baskets to family members with some simple items based on the need? After all, we have asked for one of their star players to come to work.

Share the facts, not rumor

Lastly, there must be a strong and consistent flow of information throughout the department. This doesn’t mean rumors or even just speculation, but rather facts straight from the fire chief’s desk.

The fire chief should consider conducting live or a prerecorded “state of the department” address – maybe even state of the entire city, county or district. These could be done as a daily briefing over a multimedia platform or even recorded and placed on YouTube, with the link being shared with members. Of course, if you elect to use something like YouTube, you will need to keep in mind issues of visibility and confidentiality. Whatever you choose to do, please ensure that the organization hears the truth of what is happening and what to expect in the future if at all possible.

Prioritize your people

It’s easy to get pulled into the many emergency meetings and all the issues that can pop up, but we all know that fire service organizations can’t operate without firefighters. As such, we must do our very best to ensure their safety and wellbeing.

Take care of our own first and foremost!

Editor’s Note: What measures has your department instituted to help care for its members during the COVID-19 crisis? Share in the comments below or with the editor at

Chief Keith Padgett serves as the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Academic Program Director with Columbia Southern University within the College of Safety and Emergency Services. A 42-year member of the fire service, Padgett previously served as fire chief of the Beulah Fire District in Valley, Alabama, and as the chief/fire marshal for the Fulton County Fire-Rescue Department in Atlanta. He is presently the Co-Chair of the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) EMS curriculum workgroup. He also served as a Specialty Educational Board member for the IAFC Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP) Section as the chair of the Professional Development/Higher Education sub-committee as well as a director-at-large board member on the IAFC’s Safety, Health and Survival Section. Padgett completed the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program through the National Fire Academy and has a Chief Fire Officer Destination through the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE). He holds a master’s degree in leadership with an emphasis in disaster preparedness and executive fire leadership and a bachelor’s degree in public safety administration. Connect with Padgett on LinkedIn or via email.