COVID-19: Emergency Management Lessons Learned

We have had to rethink everything including sustainability

(author photo)

By Jeff Armstrong

Like all of you, my last month (or so) has been nothing but COVID-19 related response, planning and discussions.  Emerging from this event we will undoubtedly have thousands of stories and lessons learned, each one being unique.   This pandemic has been like nothing I have seen nor hope to see again in my lifetime of public service.  The point of this article is to share some thoughts and lessons learned.  Not that these are unlike what you are experiencing; however, my desire is to memorialize this time in history while soliciting your thoughts and lessons learned in the comments. 

In my role as fire chief, I serve as the Assistant Emergency Services Director (reporting to the City Manager / Emergency Services Director) and am the City EOC Director.  Since this is a limited EOC activation, I am also filling the role of Plans Section Chief.  Our EOC has been activated since early March, like most EOCs across the Country; however, we are only at a Level Three activation.

We are trained to handle incidents, not wars

I don’t think there was a fire or EMS agency that truly felt prepared for what we have experienced over the last month or so.  From evolving direction at the Federal and state level, to new and emerging issues that surfaced within our own organization.  The COVID-19 outbreak was nothing like anything we have seen — the enemy was invisible and not at a specific location.   Hence, we couldn’t apply traditional risk models to it.  Many of us are “planners” by nature and before this, we might have felt like we understood our emergency plans, continuity plans and the capabilities of our organizations; however, this outbreak left the best us questioning everything we have known.  Our emergency plans work great for an event, multiple events or even an extended event; but traditional models are stretched thin when you apply them over unknown geography, unknown populations and unknown times.   Over the last four weeks we have had to rethink everything including sustainability, and for the smaller agencies, what would happen if we had no first responders left to staff our departments. 

Know the needs of your department and community; don’t wait for others to act

If you are a small agency like us, with an at-risk population or target hazards, you may have to make bold moves and ‘step out’ ahead of this situation early.  Collaboration is important; however, you may need to make decisions that are in the best interest of your community.  Ideally, your region, mutual aid partners and county would enter a joint management structure or form a regional incident management team (IMT).  However, if that isn’t feasible due to politics or available resources, you may have to act alone.

I don’t want to paint a picture of a community that was devastated by this pandemic. While we do not claim to have been as hard as other areas in the country, we did have significant risk due to our demographics and geography.  We identified our risks early and decided to activate our emergency operations center in early March and prepare for the worst.   We focused on public information as our primary mission, ensuring our community was obtaining factual validated information and recommendations.  Next, we focused on contingency planning to include continuity of operations and continuity of government.  Lastly, we supported logistics, knowing that as this unfolded, we would see a significant impact to our retired community members and potentially need to provide service to many “shut-ins”.  Recognizing the firefighter health and safety issues, we assigned a full-time safety officer to evaluate and monitor changes, direction, PPE, field operations and employee health. 

Be agile

Being part of a small agency also gives me the opportunity to measure effectiveness and adjust as needed.  While policies and procedures where ‘coming at us’ almost daily, from the CDC, public health and the local EMS authority (sometimes even contradicting each other), we understood this was going to be dynamic and not managed from any “playbook”.  A such, I took time to sit and talk to our staff and explain the challenges we faced.  I wanted them to understand why there were so many changes and not fall into a trap of “managing by memo”.  The assignment of a full-time safety officer turned out to be a huge value-added as this individual communicated daily across shifts and departments, while assisting in the field.    

The information coming from above us, as well as the perceived inaction by some agencies was frustrating, yet, we understood this was new terrain for us all.  Understanding that not all agencies move like the fire service where we are comfortable making decisions with 40-70% of the available information, we needed to learn patience.  Communicating with staff and preparing them for changes every shift, helped cut down on their frustration with us (management), helped them understand leader’s intent and gave them buy-in on our efforts.

While we moved sooner and faster than some, we continued to communicate and offer support.  We established a Google drive to share all our policies, procedures, IAPs and draft documents.  We asked many to share what they were doing and experiencing, to make us all stronger.  While we focused on collaboration and relationships, our primary focus had to be our own community.

We are changed forever

Lessons learned throughout this response will change our own view of our Agency as well as our own capabilities.  Our emergency managers and planning section chiefs need to think beyond an “event” and understand that the act of planning is far more important than the plan itself.  More important than our emergency plan documents, is the need to have individuals on the team who are comfortable planning, making changes and who can think like there is no box when exploring options and sustainability.   For the last few years my community has been asking about our capabilities when it comes to large scale events and emergency planning.  For the time being, I hope those questions are answered as I am extremely proud of the work the team in the EOC and in the field have done.

As a fire service organization, we are rethinking everything. From station supply stock and PPE, to our responses.  New facility protocols put into place to provide for firefighter health and safety, are beginning to make sense far beyond this pandemic.  We have also identified “rock stars” among us who have risen to meet the challenge.   We have developed and strengthened relationships that will carry us beyond the Coronavirus pandemic and into the future, making us bigger, better and stronger than ever before. 

Please stay safe and stay healthy!

Jeff Armstrong currently serves as the fire Chief for the Rio Vista Fire Department in Northern California.  He  leads a City Fire Department and under contract, serves as the Fire Chief of a neighboring Fire District.  His background includes working in a number of Organizations, and leading both full-time paid Departments and combination Departments.  With a wide variety of experience in the promotional process on both sides of the table and having mentored many candidates, he is able to speak from personal experience on the subject of promotions.

Chief Armstrong is designated as a CFO (Chief Fire Officer) from the Center for Public Safety Excellence, holds a B.S. in Public Safety Administration, an A.S. in Fire Science and is a certified Chief Officer through California State Fire Training.  He has been a registered California State Fire Instructor since 2007.

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