Covid-19 & 20

by Tom Harbour

In 1985, I was part of a wildland fire type one incident management team (IMT) assigned to deal with a large wildfire event in northeast Oregon. That corner of the state was seeing the consequences of a widespread lightning event. There were many large fires. The team received a very good orientation about the current and expected situation from the Area Commander. After a thorough briefing, I was handed a comprehensive, well-developed package of intent, key objectives, and likely challenges. The interaction was notable in its quality. I also remember that particular in-brief because the most significant challenge was the one with which the Area Commander finished “Oh by the way, you don’t have any firefighting assets now and you won’t for a while”.

That was a new experience for me and for our IMT. But perhaps that type of “new” experience will be repeated in the next few months. Are we prepared to face “new”? How do we get prepared for “new” experiences? Are we prepared to make changes which will allow 2020 to be noted for the benefit the pandemic brought to our long term strategic thinking and subsequent actions?

All responders for all types of incidents face new challenges because of the pandemic. Of necessity, the EMS/ALS community has had to adapt and is still adapting. All our responses, in all of emergency management, should set a framework for our thoughtfulness and professionalism. We are making history and developing a litany of lessons learned for future generations to consider.

In future years, the wildland fire year of 2020 will hopefully be remembered both for the significant wildland events and for improvements we implemented prompted by the pandemic.

The root of our actions should be based on the definition of objectives we seek to achieve in the context of the key challenges we face. The primary question all responders face is: How do we protect and sustain lives? Wildland fire responders are additionally concerned about ecosystems and the communities which depend on those ecosystems. Wildland fire responders also reference their actions in the context of spatial and temporal frames. How do we see our work today and tomorrow fitting into the larger picture? Have we defined those frames? Have Agency Administrators helped define those frames, or simply obfuscated because of the uncertainty?

Responders of all kinds are a wonderful and interesting group of individuals. They are focused on accomplishing the task. They are “hard-chargers”. But now, more than ever, it is time to “stop, think, talk, then finally act”. It is time to be identified by our thoughtfulness. Extremity is an opportunity and these experiences will enrich the profession. Extremity provides an opportunity for insights prompted by the “new normal”.

The most important component of response is our minds. The COVID-19 pandemic requires us to think differently. We need to have our brains engaged 24/7 – on duty and off. When we are off duty, we need to make sure we are healthy (heart, mind and body). When we are on duty, we now need to be more aware of the environment in which we work, the health of our co-workers, and the changed framework for response due to the pandemic.

The foreboding and encompassing nature of the pandemic is frightening. We likely will see friends and family become ill, and some will die. When our friends and family are ill, is our head “in the game”? The statistics from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) are sobering. A report out of China suggests serious illness occurs in 16% of cases. Of those infected, 80% of deaths were among adults 65 years and older with the highest percentage of severe outcomes occurring in people 85 years and older. Current information shows up to 25% of COVID-19 carriers remain asymptomatic. The ability of the COVID-19 virus to linger on surfaces and the dose (amount of virus) of COVID-19 to result in infection are not known.

What is known is that our personal behaviors can make a significant difference inside and outside our emergency response community. Our ability to remain calm, patient, forgiving, and thoughtful will be key to our ability to think. All of us are going through this pandemic together, each with different perspectives.

As responders, Incident Commanders, and Agency Administrators, we know our real test, the thing we relish, is difficulty and challenge. The pandemic presents us with both.

When we layer on the prospect of an active wildland fire summer in the west, an active hurricane season in the southeast and the normal press of emergencies in our local areas, our ability to more thoughtfully approach our work will be critical.

For wildland fire, the statistical likelihood of a “slow” CY2020 wildland fire year is low. While each fire year is dependent on its own combination of weather and “starts”, the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center forecasts portend a “hot and dry” late spring, summer, and early fall.

Given the pandemic, the “quarantine period” with which we’ve become accustomed, and the weather forecast, it is a reasonable assumption that our firefighting asset availability will be less than normal, perhaps half of planned. What happens then? How do we all deal with “half” the “stuff” we usually have? How do we deal with those remaining assets dealing with the mental stress of concern about being impacted by the pandemic? How will we deal with a “scheduling” experience (in/out of quarantine) we’ve never experienced at large scale in wildland fire?

Priorities will be more important than normal.

Preplanning is more important than ever.

Coordinated objectives have never been more important.

For wildland fire, in terms of asset availability for the long haul, we may be at “PL5” and “draw down” before any real activity has begun. Given the longstanding priorities we’ve seen in wildland fire, if there are insufficient assets for local initial attack, then nothing is available for large fire. Specific, immediate needs take priority over more esoteric, distant needs.

While 14-day assignments are typical for wildland fire assets, an additional 14 days in a facility to forestall COVID-19 spread is not.

We will not simply “give up”, so what does the responder, the crew, the IC, and the Agency Administrator do?

At the personal level, let’s pay more attention than ever to “stop, think, talk, then act”. What about recasting “pg 19” (How to Properly Refuse Risk) of the IRPG (NWCG PMS 461) into the COVID-19 context? What special personal features are you considering to “get out of the smoke” and lower stress on your respiratory system? Will you be treating people with dignity and respect? Even when they cough and sneeze? What steps are we each taking to review traditional responses and ponder the difference the virus will make? How will the inability to “count” on additional assets change personal behavior?

At the Crew level, we will need to figure out how to build cohesion, even if we don’t have the same lengthy opportunities to “be together”. For crews, can individual modules be separated so that when a member of the crew tests positive the entire crew has some residual strength? How are we going to be more thoughtful about the risks and rewards of having the entire crew together? Are your tactics dependent on an additional crew or other assets? Are you encouraging employees to “speak up”? Do they know why they are accomplishing assigned activities? How will you approach others in this COVID-19 time? Given high rates of infection by asymptomatic people, who will you trust?

At the Incident Commander and Incident Management Team level, what new strategies and tactics are you developing? Have you considered a lack of firefighting assets in your thinking about potential control/containment features? What if there is a particular asset-type shortage (crews, engines, dozers, etc.)? What level of focus will you have on responder health, or on values and objectives? Will hospitals be able to deal with your medical emergencies? How will epidemiologists interact with traditional IMT structures and how will their advice impact operations? How will long term smoke concerns impact operations? Have you prepared yourself for the inevitable insertion of election year influences?

For Agency Administrators, how are you going to maintain focus on your social, ecological and physical objectives? How do you meet your individual, organizational goals while preventing dissatisfied partners from becoming more dissatisfied? How will decisions this year frame relationships for next? Have you focused on and appropriately modified your leaders’ intent? Have you outlined your key strategic objectives? Have you coordinated those objectives with others? What impact will the lack of traditional sheltering space have on your objectives? Is your view of authority changed in light of the pandemic? What is the geographic impact and limit of your decision making authority during a pandemic?

Agency Administrators are particularly poised to make pre-planning a more significant component of activity this year. The ability to gather internally and externally, talk through various scenarios, allow challenge to accepted beliefs, think about non-traditional exigencies, understand the impact of election-year politics, discuss new ways to share costs and responsibilities, derive basic documents for implementation, and record results will all be critical to success.

Higher-level Agency Administrators should note the counsel of Stephen Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and quoted recently in a national newspaper. He asks “One is, are they conducive to imagination? Second, do they value the exercise of discretion throughout the system? And third, are they good at calculating the risk across agencies? What are the trade-offs of closing…(a jurisdiction)?” The article continues, “The culture of plans on shelves can carry government officials only so far when disaster strikes. What then becomes more important are the systems in place that allow for quick action, improvisation and the rapid creation of systems to deal with the unexpected. Experts in disaster management suggest that a functional system empowers officials farther down in the government to act without having been ordered to do so. Coordination must be at higher levels of government; response should be at a much lower level.”

The fire service has now experienced the first “line of duty death” from COVID-19. Others are on the way. The pandemic has changed our world. Risk is increasing. How will we change our emergency response and response to wildland fire? What we do know is that we will persist. We do know that the indomitable human spirit, manifested so directly in the work of responders, Incident Commanders, and Agency Administrators, will be noted for years to come. Preparing for difficult answers, new answers, non-traditional answers, will allow us to flourish, even in the face of a pandemic we’ve never known. Our personal and professional legacy must be one of resilience and strength.