The Covid pandemic has made a mess of the fire service worldwide. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Fire departments are reeling from the inability to raise funds, they are feeling the impact of not being able to recruit new firefighters, they are hampered by the inability to train together, and they are concerned about how this will affect the future of the fire service worldwide. While I don’t want to downplay the significance of Covid, in this article I want to offer a perspective on what it can mean for how we move forward in positive ways.
The world loves the fire service. That much is a given. Our popularity in public opinion polls has always been high and likely will trend even higher. The reason for that? Because even during this pandemic, it has been the fire service that continues to respond to every call for help. It isn’t an option for the fire service to shut down or stay at home. That isn’t even a consideration. Through all of this, all around the globe, the fire service continues to roll fire trucks and ambulances out of the bays to respond to our neighbours’ calls for help. That is simply who we are. When someone needs help, we don’t delay, we don’t wait, we don’t hesitate – we respond.
So how do we make lemonade out of the lemons we have been dealt over the past year? Let’s break this down into three categories: financial, training and recruitment.
For many volunteer fire departments, fundraising is as much a part of the everyday tasks as response. During the pandemic, it has been impossible for firefighters to go door to door to solicit contributions or to hold bingo nights, pancake breakfasts, or barbeques. While direct-mail solicitations have continued, we realize that our customers are also feeling the impact of Covid and may not be able to make the same contributions that they have made before. In fire departments that are tax supported, tax receipts may decline affecting the ability to finance operations.
So, what do we do?
First and foremost, we must make our communities realize how important the fire service is to them. Do they want an ambulance coming to their medical emergency quickly? Do they want a fire truck to show up when their property is burning? The answer to that is a resounding ‘yes’. We have to make people – our customers and potential customers (which is all of them) – realize how basic our services are, and then we have to make sure our elected leaders understand how necessary it is to fund our agencies appropriately.
I don’t think this is a hard sell, but we have to do both. We need to create that grassroots understanding of what we do – and we have to make sure that this is communicated to the leaders who make decisions that affect the funding of the fire service. Will we get as much money as we need? Probably not. Will we get as much money as we want? Most likely no, but without the effort to communicate to our customer base, we know what the result will be.
The public is supportive of us and once we make the need known to them, they will rally – much as the fire service has rallied during this pandemic to support the people of our communities. I see fire departments holding parades, driving by kids’ birthday parties, helping seniors with deliveries of meals and medications, and holding online contests for the kids. That’s the fire service I am so proud of – and it is the fire service that will lead the way.
I have become increasingly concerned during this pandemic that firefighters are not being allowed to train because of group limitations and other restrictions placed upon them. I am growing alarmed at the potential to have firefighters hurt or killed because they aren’t keeping their skill levels up. We know we work in very dangerous environments – from response in vehicles, to IDLH atmospheres, to working on the roadways. Then throw in concerns about cancer, physical fitness and heart disease, and those risks multiply.
However, there are things we can do to train during the pandemic, even with restrictions in place. We are fortunate that virtual platforms exist to allow us to continue to train. I am sure that many of you are Zoomed out just like I am. If I never had to do another Zoom meeting I’d be very happy, but the reality is that we have to take advantage of virtual training like never before. In fact, in many ways it can be a blessing. In my own department, located in rural and remote Kansas, we have been blessed with speakers that we could never have afforded to bring to our area in person. We learned a lot, but you can only do so much training in that way. It is still necessary to check the oil in the trucks, to throw ladders and to run pumps. These are skills you cannot practice via Zoom – or can you? My department was able to do a forcible-entry class with a very thoughtful and resourceful instructor located halfway across the nation. It would have been better in person, but still we learned things that we can put to use daily.
Only your imagination limits your ability to train. The important thing is to continue to train in every way possible because that will ultimately keep us from getting injured or worse.
It’s pretty hard to recruit firefighters when the doors are closed. And yet, during the first three months of this pandemic, my department continued to successfully recruit volunteers to join our ranks. In my opinion training is where it all begins in the recruitment arena. Good quality training holds a department together. It allows older firefighters to mentor the new ones. It allows the transfer of skills from one generation to the next. If you aren’t doing quality training, recruitment is likely to suffer.
The other important recruitment tool is to make sure we are running our departments, as leaders, like a family. We talk a lot about family, but some don’t always walk the walk. During the pandemic, have you been connecting with your firefighters if you can’t be together at drills or fundraisers or suppers? You can still do this with a simple personal text message or with a phone call. Check up on your people, especially the new ones. Make sure you know what they need and what they are doing in their lives. This isn’t rocket science, it’s a matter of fulfilling a basic human need – to be valued. You can recruit all you want, but if you can’t retain, you lose the battle. Recruitment is not impossible during a pandemic; it just requires us to modify how we do it.
The future of the fire service has never looked brighter. Our customers understand what we do, and we have the ability to reinforce those views even during a pandemic. That reinforcement will lead to strong fundraising and strong recruitment efforts. It can lead to even sharper skills in the field when we learn to modify how we train while still using quality available training that can help us save lives – both of the civilian population and of our brothers and sisters in the fire service. We are not a whining sort – we are a ‘can do’ bunch of men and women that perform our mission proudly and passionately, helping our neighbours when they need it most. What other profession can you say this about? We are firefighters and together we will win this battle.
For more information, go to www.nvfc.org