‘I never thought I would be leading an organization through a world pandemic’

Through the fire chief’s eyes: Navigating a pandemic to protect our people

When I became a fire chief in 2004, I had disaster management experience under my belt – catastrophic flooding in Fargo, North Dakota; natural gas explosions; life-threatening winter storms with building collapses; and, of course, global terrorism.

At that time, our organization was still recovering from the earth-shattering events of September 11, 2001. The fire service was shifting more to an all-risk organization model, and our federal and state agencies were developing new programs and systems, like the National Incident Management System (NIMS), and even new agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security.

Local fire departments were being asked to address and mitigate much more than just fire calls. We were introducing regional hazmat teams to address new risks that our communities were facing. We were rewriting NFPA standards and training requirements for Firefighter 1 to include hazmat requirements. Organizations were scrambling to respond to anthrax/“white powder” calls, and we were learning about new threats like improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

The chief masks up.
The chief masks up. (Photos/Jason Caughey)

It was a challenging time to be a new fire chief. I thought I had experienced all that I could imagine.

The “new norm” prompts questions – and coping mechanisms

Fast-forward to 2020. Now a 16-year fire chief, I find myself once again facing a new challenge that is creating a new norm for our fire department. Needless to say, at the start of the year, I never thought I would be leading an organization through a world pandemic.

Just like all of you, I find myself facing new challenges, stresses and frustrations in the form of many questions:

  • Are we protecting our people enough?
  • Are we providing the necessary service to our community?
  • Do we have enough precautions to protect our infrastructure?
  • How are our people surviving?
  • What are our members needs and fears and how can I help them?

Then on top of those uncertainties are all the “what-ifs”: What if we have catastrophic spread of COVID-19 through our members? What if we can’t staff stations or apparatus, and, God forbid, what if we have a death to a member or family member in the organization due to the pandemic?

All of these concerns have become the new normal for me as a fire chief.

Since March 1, my new normal is Zoom meetings, conference calls, and reduced contact with our members and community. I find myself burdened with more stress and fear than any other time in my career.

Here is what I am doing about it.

Seeing the forest for the trees: Sometimes we lose site of the beauty of the forest because our vision is blocked by all the trees in front of us. To overcome a blocked vision as we navigate this pandemic, I schedule quiet time in my office early in the morning to clear my head and see the big picture of our new norm. This time allows me to create new plans and think clearly about my priorities, our people and community. I suggest you find your space and identify a time to take a breath and appreciate what we have and to think about the big picture.

Focusing on mental and physical health: We all deal with stress in different ways. For me (and probably many of you), I stress-eat. During an event like this, it is critical that we control our stress, eat as healthy as possible, and stay hydrated. We can’t serve our members if we are stressed and sick. It is also imperative that we make the time to get some physical activity in during our day. There are countless websites and articles to help you find healthy workouts and food options. Take the time to make healthy choices, stay away from alcohol and set aside some time for yourself. Many of us are working modified work schedules, so try to create a system for your day that prioritizes healthy food, workouts and, most importantly, sleep.

Finding ways to communicate: I am very fortunate to have a great network of leaders from around our region, and we are all checking in on each other and sharing our policies and procedures. This has been a huge help in my sanity. During this crisis, develop a support networks of friends, family and other leaders who are experiencing the same challenges. Create weekly check-ins with your peers. Check-ins are an excellent way to gain mental strength from each other, which helps us realize that we are not alone in this.

Not taking it home: Not only should we practice good hygiene to limit us taking COVID-19 home, we need to practice good mental health and not bring home our stress. For example, I need the support of my wife to help me balance the stress I am feeling. My wife tells me to leave my chief hat at the door, so I have to remember to decompress before I walk through the front door. I have created a system to leave work at the door. I set up a decon zone in the garage where I leave my duty boots and uniform and wash my hands, then I shower. This allows me time to decompress and shed the burden I have on me, which allows me to communicate with my wife without stress. I have found since doing this that I am more open and attentive to positive conversations. I cannot tell you how much this has done for me to recover faster and prepare for the challenges of the next day. Her input on what I am experiencing has be invaluable.

Leadership lessons learned

I have learned a lot of lessons since just March 1.

In the beginning, I was in denial that we would see an impact. But as the virus began to flow across the country like a tidal wave, I found myself reacting and worried about how to best protect our members.

I implemented policies and procedures, purchased PPE and reinforced our response plans. This was all good for the moment but not sustainable. I ended up being a babysitter, a hallway cop managing whose doing what. Where are they going on their days off, etc.? All of this added to my stress and truly wasn’t effective.

It’s important to remind the community about the importance of social distancing to “flatten the curve.”
It’s important to remind the community about the importance of social distancing to “flatten the curve.”

As the weeks of social distancing continued, we were able to refine our policy and procedures to be more manageable and more effective. I started to feel better about where we were as an organization, and our members were buying into the policies and procedures – until it hit us.

Three weeks into our plans, we had our first positive diagnosis within the community. This event sent us reeling again, conducting epidemiology tracking of contacts of staff with the positive individual and creating first-generation mapping of all exposures. Dealing with city, county and state health departments was a new experience.

One of the lessons I learned was that our members envisioned their personal exposure would come from a medical call where they contact a patient that is sick. In fact, the first question they all asked after being informed of the positive case was, “What call did they get exposed on?”

This was a false vision; in fact, our greatest exposure risk was our personal life out in the community. This realization was jaw-dropping for many members. On the job, we are taking every precaution possible to protect us from contamination and spread, but when our members go home, they lose that focus.

We began focusing on communicating to our members that they need to follow the same safety precautions at home that they are doing at work: wear masks in public, wash hands, decon after being out in the public, and practice social distancing.

Ready for the challenges ahead

Now 30 days into our new norm, I continue to find myself challenged with new “What ifs,” but because I am more prepared mentally and physical and am taking steps to care for myself, it is becoming less stressful to keep going.

The value of seeing the forest for the trees, being mentally and physically healthy, communicating, and not taking home my stress is allowing me to be a better leader and a better husband.

I know there will be many more challenges and lessons learned in the coming weeks and months. I’ll be ready. I hope you are, too.

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