What will you do with a year of pain?
By Timothy Pillsworth
Some people are calling 2020 the “lost year.” Our children’s schools, sports, Scouts, band, graduations, FDIC … all were canceled in 2020. Family vacations, weddings, and reunions were replaced with Zoom gatherings. For some, 2020 meant working from home without any personal interaction. Many of us spent far too much time working, and the loss of social interaction, in person, face to face was not healthy for most. Humans are social creatures. Moreover, most concerning, from speaking with our son’s teachers on the effect of remote schooling, “the only good thing is they will all be at the same level.” While true, it is sad.
So, was it a lost year in the volunteer fire service? What did we lose? Our in-person drills were replaced with Zoom drills. Monthly meetings were held remotely or just the front table gathered in some way to make sure bills were paid. E-mails to announce the ever-changing COVID rules were sent out daily. Family outings, parties, annual awards dinners, and fire prevention at the schools–all were canceled. Therefore, the answer is simple. Much and nothing was lost.
Many of us talked about some of the skills starting to slip as the year progressed. While we did not forget the muscle memory, the speed and accuracy of those skills had slipped. Those most basic skills, while still there for those of us with a good number of years of experience, maybe were just not as refined or high quality as in the past. For our newest members, some of those skills could have been lost, or even completely missed, due to the lack of in-person drills. As we started to return to in-person drills in small groups, we were able to relearn, teach, and improve the most basic skills that allow us to protect those we serve and protect ourselves.
What was lost and missing during 2020 is now replaced with the desire to train, train harder, and train more often–not just for our newest members. We can all remember the first years of being a firefighter. We looked for any reason to be at the station and in the truck room. Many of the more senior firefighters are seeing the need to drill and train more as an important part of our mission. This momentum can carry us for a time and, if used correctly, will make the department better in the future. The department and company training officers should take this time to adjust not just for today under COVID but for the future and improve their training programs. Reach out to senior firefighters; ask them for ideas to run a drill or plan additional nights for training specific groups within the station. Bring back the basics and bring fun back to training.
Time together after the calls and drills has been greatly reduced to limit exposure and to keep the house from becoming invaded by COVID. Those fraternal connections bring the department’s members together. We all missed that time. We would check on each other’s families, plan things, and bust on each other. As those times start to slowly return, the feelings of belonging returned. We talked about our families, checked on each other, and gave and received congratulations for all those things that could and did take place while we were separated. We ribbed each other for everything we could. What was missed for many months was replaced with feelings of belonging and being part of something larger than we are as individuals. The support of brothers and sisters in your house make you better and the entire department better. Most departments are openly talking about the big party or celebration once this is all over. I cannot wait. Start your planning on what you can do and afford. Get a full cover for all alarms and enjoy. It has been earned. Reward those who went above and beyond to keep the department working and safe over the past year. It was not easy.
If COVID hit your station, there was the small to massive changes in crews, assignments, and response protocols to keep open. Some stations had to limit/eliminate response or assign acting officers to fill in spots. The numbers of firefighters allowed to be in contact with the public was reduced to the greatest extent possible over the past year. This protected the house and it members. With those lessons, take them and adjust for the future to assist your department’s responses in the future not only to protect your department but also to reduce the workload where possible. Some department started duty crews for the normal responses, maybe a single company to auto alarms, motor vehicle accidents, or carbon monoxide calls with the correct dispatch information. This is where we need good information gathering and dispatching to upgrade as needed. Some of these ideas would reduce the amount of full station responses, which keeps the firefighters home for the mundane alarms and allows for more available time to train.
As time has passed during this pandemic, many of us started to think about our health, both physical and mental. With gyms being closed, both public and within our stations, many of us spent less time working our bodies and minds and more time snacking, drinking, and numbly staring at our electric devices. As our stress increases, we look toward comfort foods and that Friday night beer turned into the nightly drink for some. What is concerning is repetitive actions take weeks to months to take hold and can turn into bad and unhealthy habits. That is where problems start. Who now has a problem? For me, I put on a few pounds that I should lose. Without Scouts and lacrosse with my sons, I have not been as active as I should have. Start to become more active. Put down the phone and read, walk, and become active in mind and body.
Many of those around me (my wife, my sons, and myself included) have had their moments during these difficult times. For those around us who are hurting inside, physically, or mentally, look after them and help where you can. Listen to them when they want to talk. Listening is an active process, so put effort into it. If there is a large problem that needs professional assistance, recommend it. Reinforce that asking for help is not a sign of weakness but of inner strength. If you fear someone might cause harm, report it, and get help. While there could be some hurt feelings or maybe a little embarrassment, if wrong, the end results are much worse. Feeling out of control is a great stressor for many; find ways to control what you can. The takeaway from this mess of a year we call 2020 is we are checking on each other more often–maybe not in person all the time but more often. Checking in on our family–personal and firehouse–and our neighbors needs to continue. The short conversations can really help someone during a difficult time.
As for the personal care for our own health that we have had pounded into our heads for months, carry that forward into the future. Wash your hands after every time you leave the firehouse; don’t stop because the pandemic is over. There are substances that are all around the truck room that over time can cause harm. Don’t spend time eating all your meals in the truck room. Granted, after a long alarm you might need to inhale a slice of pizza but limit it. If you are sick, stay home and don’t infect others with a bad cold or the flu. A stomach bug or the flu can wipe out a large number of members in a very short time, so take time away from the house if you are sick.
What we have lost in 2020 is lost; you cannot take back time or an event. From what was lost, we can learn and be better in the future. My wrestling coach in high school, a Marine, would yell at us that “pain is weakness leaving your body.” We did get stronger, faster, and smarter. Well, there was much pain in 2020. That pain can either stop you or make you stronger. It’s your choice. Was 2020 a lost year? Or was 2020 a year of pain turning into future strength? It’s your choice.
Timothy Pillsworth has been active in the volunteer fire service since 1986. He is a firefighter/EMT with the Washingtonville (NY) Fire Department and is a former chief and life member of the Winona Lake (NY) Engine Company. Pillsworth has presented at FDIC International and at other local and regional conferences on engine company operations and leadership in the volunteer fire service. He authored and coauthored many articles on personal protective equipment (PPE), volunteerism, engine company operations, attack system flow testing, and volunteer fire department management and planning. Pillsworth is the author of the PPE chapter in Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II and is a project engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.