AMU Fire & EMS Original Public Safety

Is Your Fire Department Prepared for the 2021 Reopening?

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By Randall Hanifen
Edge Contributor

Many of the states that were holding back on easing their COVID-19 restrictions have now relented. This change means that we are going back to normal in fire department operations as well.

Some of the adjustments include re-instituting commercial inspections, conducting multi-company training and conducting PR events. For many firefighters on staff who have become accustomed to these programs being inactive, the amount of work required to restart them may cause some angst in your fire department. Also, you must see what extra duties that were being taken on cannot be ended in order to make time for our traditional activities.

Some of the activities that are resuming are company-level inspections, multi-company training and public relations programs. We must ensure that each of these programs is brought back online in a systematic fashion to ensure that each is successful.

Company-Level Inspections Are a Large Workload for Many Municipal Fire Departments

Company-level inspections are a large workload for many municipal fire departments. While the best- prepared fire departments are the ones that conduct company inspections, much time is spent going into the community to conduct them.

The first determination that needs to be made related to the company inspection program is what type of inspection program was in place during the COVID-19 restrictions. Some departments decided to completely suspend all inspections, while others found alternative methods to continue them.

One popular option was to implement a self-inspection program, whereby forms were emailed to local businesses that were asked to complete the inspection and report their findings. My department conducted this program, and I was surprised at the high number of businesses that completed the inspection and sent it back.

For Suspended Fire Inspections, Fire Departments Should Consider Extra Time to Complete Them

If inspections were completely suspended, fire department administrations should consider adding extra time to complete them now, compared to the time taken to complete fire inspections prior to COVID-19. Because fire safety is often not at the forefront of business concerns, violations may have begun to pile up. So the time needed for each inspection now will be longer, because a good inspection program is based more on education than on punitive actions for violations. Even if you still allow self-inspections, you must remember that the typical business owner is not a fire safety inspector.

Some Businesses May Still Have Pandemic Restrictions in Place

Another item to consider is that some businesses may still have pandemic restrictions in place. What policies, provisions and training has your department put in place to ensure that those restrictions do not become a contentious issue between a business and the fire department?

As we know, firefighters often have a “give me a task and I will complete it” mentality. So we must remind them that not all businesses have the same philosophy about COVID-19 and the pace of lifting restrictions.

PR Programs May Have Some Issues and Require Careful Planning

PR programs are another great interaction with the fire department. However, many of the same issues that were present with inspections also exist for PR events.

Many people already want classes such as CPR and other community risk-reduction programs, but others may not yet feel comfortable with outsiders in their home or business. Views can vary widely, and departments should accept invitations to participate in PR events but not solicit them just yet.

Another caveat to PR events is the vaccinated/unvaccinated issue related to being in people’s homes and businesses. The fire department should have a plan to address this issue.

Does your department cancel the event if some people do not want unvaccinated personnel so close at hand? As the event organizer, do you transfer personnel to accommodate the PR event? All of these options should be thought out beforehand.

Group trainings fortunately do not include a person-to-person element, but they do have a cultural adjustment element. Many departments moved to video and online training to partially satisfy training requirements. If any practical training was completed, it was often in-house with only a single company.

We now must readjust back to multi-company drills that were often overseen by the training division chief and had metrics for performance. We must understand that fire department personnel will have lost manipulative skills and will need time to regain their proficiency.

Avoiding Injuries

We must also be aware of the potential for injuries. Many departments have very successful fitness programs. But as we all sat inside and became less motivated to exercise, the fitness levels of many personnel declined, which can lead to injury. Proper stretching and a slower-paced workout might be a good starting point.

Like any adjustment, we will adapt. But as leaders of the organization, we must ensure that we facilitate and make provisions for a good, safe restart.

Dr. Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. from a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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