You have heard countless times during this national emergency – we are in unprecedented times. Our generation is no different. There have been many unprecedented times. All four of my grandparents and even great grandparents lived through the Spanish Flu in 1918. My parents’ lives were upended with World War II as my father spent four years fighting in the South Pacific, and my mom worked in the factories. The COVID-19 pandemic is a test of our generation.
Individually, we will not solve this problem, but collectively we will. As a fire chief, chief officer, or company officer, you should be doing your part by leading during this crisis. The lack of leadership can leave your workforce of firefighters vulnerable and demoralized.
One aspect you should be leading with is making sure your firefighters' health and safety are protected. Fire departments that have been proactive have chief officers and company officers that have sought out best practices and stayed informed on how the coronavirus is impacting first responders. In my conversations with many on Capitol Hill during this crisis, including the White House, elected officials in Congress, and congressional staffers, I have repeatedly said that firefighters are the "warriors at the tip of the spear." As the largest EMS provider in the United States, we find ourselves treating, caring, and transporting infected patients to the hospital.
Fire chiefs, chief officers, and company officers should be making all efforts to enact best practices and ensure firefighters have the personal protective equipment (PPE) they need. Getting proper PPE has been challenging for many, but some chiefs have been resourceful and have not relied on the state stockpile. They have gone out and tried to buy PPE on the open market. Other steps they have taken include enacting social distancing in fire stations, new cleaning protocols, supplies in fire stations, new protocols for on-scene patient care, plus other measures to protect their firefighters. That is leadership. Do not wait for something to go wrong or happen-— be proactive and prevent bad things from happening.
The last thing that we as leaders should be doing is keeping morale up and maintaining resiliency among our firefighters. The impact of COVID-19 on the psychological well-being of firefighters can be devasting. They are obviously responding to calls and worry about whether they are going to contract the disease. They worry about taking it home to their families. They listen to the daily bombardment from the media on a 24-hour news cycle about how bad it is. They listen to the talking heads on television say it will be years before a vaccine is ready. They start to hear their local elected leaders talk about budget cuts and worry about their job. Volunteer fire departments have been unable to fundraise, and their leadership worries about serving the community. Maybe one of your firefighters has someone in their family that has lost their job or a business that has been shut down. All of this can factor in the mental stability of your firefighters.
Leadership is making sure plans and programs are in place to help with resiliency to weather the constant bombardment of bad news and the worry of catching the virus on a call. Leadership is maintaining a positive attitude and not joining in the chorus who want to tell you how bad it is. Leadership is letting your firefighters know there is a green light after every red light, and eventually, we will get through this, just like my grandparents did in 1918 and my parents in World War II.
We will get through this current crisis, and how we come out on the backside will depend on the leadership exhibited at all levels in all kinds of different organizations. Fire chiefs, chief officers, and company officers can certainly do their part by providing extraordinary leadership during extraordinary times.
Chief Gary Ludwig currently serves as the Fire Chief of the Champaign (Illinois) Fire Department and serves as IAFC President and Chairman of the Board. He has 42 years of fire, rescue, and EMS experience.