Chief Brady Hansen leaned forward into the mahogany conference table. His hands clasped together at his chest; his elbows formed the corner of his white-shirted human triangle. I had picked the seat opposing his on this day, the day of our weekly chiefs’ meeting, and his solemn black eyes locked with mine.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he said as we all were becoming aware of the impact the novel COVID-19 virus would have on our agency, our community, our nation, our world.
There are moments in one’s life that are anchored in memory. This certainly is one for me. In the prime of my eighteen-year fire service career, my life – both professional and personal – had hit a peak of achievement, pride, and satisfaction like none I had ever imagined could be possible.
Life was so very good.
The leadership you are under will be predictive of how your agency responds to this crisis. Prioritizing the safety of your people while avoiding squandering limited personal protective gear is just one example of the many leadership decisions to be made as we take on this riveting challenge. Our leaders in fire will be working in unified command positions, collaborating with partners to serve communities, and success will be measured by their ability to give and to take.
We in the fire service have a bit of an advantage. We are used to working minute-by-minute, making changes on the fly. And so it has been since that meeting, the information line sometimes changes hourly; new dispatch procedures, new patient contact procedures, new PPE measures, and on and on. Assess, adjust, assess, adjust; it’s an ongoing process that goes on until the fire goes out. We all pause and wonder, when will COVID-19 go out?
The entire prioritization list got turned upside down when COVID-19 showed up in our nation. Suddenly, the number one community risk was not structure fires, car crashes, or wildland fires. The number one community risk - lurking on hard surfaces, in the air in front of our loving friends and family members, silently waiting for one contaminated wipe of the face – is now an adversary far greater than those we know so well in the fire service. Oh, give me a structure fire where I know exactly how to respond.
For the last several weeks, I have been waking up at 3:30 AM and wonder if I just had a bad dream about a virus killing so many people all over the world. It’s taking less time every morning for me to recall this is not a dream. The daily stress of this unseen monster chips away, sculpting the stability of one’s life and the stability of the future into an object we can’t yet visualize. All we feel are the tiny, methodical, and continuous chips hammered away. It is hard to stay strong when firefighters’ names keep showing up on the internet; died of complications to the COVID-19 virus.
My mother, a retired hospice nurse, and my mentor, taught me that one only has the minute one is living in. Right now. Not something that happened in the past, not the worries of the future. Just right now. As I sit at this desk, in the now, I am thankful for her mentorship and our organization’s strong leadership. I am grateful that I got to where I wanted to go and beyond. I shall prepare for the future, and work hard to not fret about what I do not know. I shall be ready for the worst of times, but today, I still smile and celebrate the best of times.
And I shall sanitize often.
Chief Kathy Clay is the battalion chief fire marshal of the Jackson Hole Fire/EMS (Wyoming) Department. She holds an IAFC and Missouri Valley Division membership and sits on the Wyoming Governor’s Council on Fire Prevention. She also represents the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF) on the Vision 20/20 Steering Committee and is a former IAWF board member. Clay is the Fire Investigator for Teton County (Wyoming) and is a member of the International Association of Arson Investigators.