COVID-19: The conflagration’s still spreading, so where do we go from here?

Focus on your members, budget, planning for the future, and strong leadership


In March, we talked about the COVID-19 pandemic not being like a typical house fire, but rather a global conflagration that will require extreme leadership.

Well, here we are, three month later and the fire’s still burning – a strong reminder to make sure your long-term house is in order.

Although states and economies are in various stages of opening, it is critical to ensure that our personnel continue unabated in their personal protection so that we can keep people on the job serving our communities. (Photo/Getty Images)
Although states and economies are in various stages of opening, it is critical to ensure that our personnel continue unabated in their personal protection so that we can keep people on the job serving our communities. (Photo/Getty Images)

We don’t yet know exactly what our “new normal” will entail, so I’ll refer to the “now normal” as your call to adapt and overcome, just as we have many times before.

Although states and economies are in various stages of opening, it is critical to ensure that our personnel continue unabated in their personal protection so that we can keep people on the job serving our communities.

Looking out for your people

First things first: How are your people doing? I’m quite sure you’ve been taking care of their PPE needs. We’ve all been dealing with the supply issues and doing everything we can to make sure the street-level providers have everything they need.

As we laser-focus on PPE, it can be very easy to get caught up in our moments of chaos and lose sight of our members’ mental well-being. In many places, those providers have been riding the tip of the spear, not only answering the thousands of potential virus calls, but also dealing with the same psyche everyone else was – the isolation and quarantining that has ways of dragging down even the most robust of personalities. There are physical and mental impacts that will require attention down the line.

Make sure you’re recognizing your members’ needs and providing the information about relevant policies as well as environments where they have access to the services the need – not to mention that they feel comfortable reaching out to you. Make sure you’re out there with your members, working through the pains with them and offering whatever services they may need to deal with the situations at hand.

The “now normal” budgets

The impact of the four-month or longer economic slowdown is just now beginning to affect us one way or the other, especially smaller departments. Understanding where we’ve been is part and parcel to plotting a course forward. If you haven’t processed the “why,” this is important, for both the short term and long term.

Let’s consider the impacts:

  • Millions of people stayed home for extended periods of time. The positives: Fewer traffic wrecks/injuries and less air pollution. The challenges: Less revenue (gas taxes, hotel/motel taxes, road tolls, sales taxes, local business income and business viability, joblessness, etc.). Some changes: While some online businesses and food-delivery services expanded, and maybe flourished, much of that will be short-lived adaptations to the “now normal.”
  • For those of you on a July budget cycle, when this started, your budgets were in final planning stages and you may or may not end up with a sustainable plan moving forward. Be prepared – changes are coming whether you like it or not.
  • For those of you on the federal October budget cycle (like me), you will soon be realizing, if you do not already, that times are about to get tough. Smaller revenues will translate into less income in the jurisdictions coffers, which will result in less money available for various segments of government operations.
  • Just because you have a “dedicated” funding stream doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods by any means – all things can be changed, trust me!
  • Long term: The dominos of reduced revenue will result in reduced community investment, reduced construction development and, therefore, reduced income overall. One example: A multi-billion-dollar expansion at the Tampa International Airport that was in process was just put on hold, likely for years, if not decades.

The overall message: We don’t KNOW what your new financial normal looks like, yet!

Finding ways to conserve expenditures while ensuring safety is a monumental challenge when you’re dealing with shoe-string operations. You really have two choices: 1) Figure it out or 2) the next chief will figure it out.

Can you put off that expenditure for new office furniture? Sure. Can you put off that expenditure for new SCBA? If they’re already out of compliance and you have disparate equipment, the answer should be a firm NO! There will be hard choices we all have to make in the coming months.

Planning for the future begins now

Do you remember what position many of us were in a few short months ago? Short on masks, short on shoe covers, and short on health department relationships. Well, what’s your plan to avoid such supply-chain chaos in the future?

You cannot simply “order” (either in action or process) your way out of these situations. We should be using this time to monitor the expectations of PPE use amongst our members, and developing plans for maintaining not only product flow but also storage for the future.

For those of you who remember the H5N1 (bird flu) or H1N1 (swine flu) eras, you likely recall hoarding quantities of N-95 or similar masks, only to find them rotting in shelves of forgotten inventory 11 years later. We MUST NOT repeat this kind of history. There has to be an inventory-control solution that rotates and updates supplies so that when the next pandemic hits, we’re not depending on the latest stimulus package to save us. WE can control this, but we have to choose both as chiefs and politicians to make the case and build the systems of inventory that will get us there.

Both from an operational and a provider notice perspective, were your infectious control procedures adequate? Was your supply-chain challenging? Fix those issues now. Documentation of the situation will be just as critical in the future as it should be right now. It is inevitable that there will be workers’ compensation, risk management and legal challenges coming – and your processes/rules and documentation will matter.

Leadership – and social distancing – for the future

We’ve all learned some new terms in the past few months, “social distancing” being the most prominent for me. Truth be told, we should have been practicing this for years!

If you learn anything from this experience, understanding the dynamics of the social distancing exercise is important. Even with very similar government shutdown processes, in areas where there is less density versus more density, the outcomes have been dynamically different. You could almost call it an exercise in supply and demand – there was plenty of supply of people, and the demand for the exercise accommodated the supply.

Beyond the sadness of death and the challenges to response, what we learn and how we react to future situations that demand social distancing will be the lasting impact of this “exercise” in new terminology.

I mentioned this before, and it bears repeating again: Our long-term challenge will be to figure out how to live Gordon Graham’s mantra, “If it’s predictable, it’s preventable.” We are working our way through the “now normal” to get to the other side. What that will look like is anybody’s guess at this point.

It’s by no means over

The fire’s still burning – the virus is still spreading. It is by no means over, and we can just barely see the light through the trees of this forest.

Where will we be in a year? Who knows. But today, I can tell you that we need to take care of our people, be prepared to make some hard budget decisions, and work to position our departments’ supply chain and response models for future success in whatever that new normal will look like.

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