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Pandemic Has Tremendous Impact on Local Fire Departments

by and on May 18, 2020 5:00 AM

Editor’s note: COVID-19 has impacted Centre County in numerous ways, and The Centre County Gazette is united with the community, working to provide information and resources during this challenging time. The Gazette is speaking with some prominent community stakeholders about the pandemic and how the region is responding. The third discussion in the series is with Steven W. Bair, EFO, CFO, and fire director/ chief of the department for the Centre Region Council of Governments. His replies below reflect his personal opinions on the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and are not necessarily the opinions of the CRCOG or any individual fire company in the county.

CCG: Firefighters are essential and must respond during emergencies. How are these emergency responders working to minimize their risk when they respond to calls? What are they doing to protect the public while out in the communities?

Bair: You are correct. The fire department cannot suspend operations — ever. Infection control has been a part of fire service training for a long time, so we have a reasonably good foundation from which to build. To the degree practicable, we follow the same guidelines recommended for the general population, which includes social distancing, wearing a mask, not coming to work or respond if we are sick and conduct quality hand-washing frequently.

The current pandemic has taken some of this to new levels. For example, one cannot socially distance in a fire engine and so now we wear masks when we have more than one person in a vehicle. We wear masks when we are dealing directly with the public, regardless of the social distance we might be able to maintain within a person’s house or business.

We ask our members to take their temperature every day and we have forehead thermometers in the stations for this purpose (in case they forgot to do it before they came to the station).

We also have imposed travel restrictions on our members. If a member has visited a “red” county or has been out of state, they must self-isolate from us for 14 days.

An actual fire or rescue is a bit different. It is often very difficult to work in a mask and often social distancing among firefighters is not practical. When specific conditions exist, making masking and distancing difficult, you will continue to see us working without masks and in close proximity to one another.

Everyone understands this risk and that is one reason our compliance to recommendations is very high. We have also tightened our perimeter at the scene of fires and rescues; we do not want the general public near us while we are unmasked. The fire stations are currently closed to visitors.

We don’t want to be sick and we certainly do not want to make the citizens we serve sick. Fire and rescue personnel are a limited resource.

CCG: How has COVID-19 and the economic fallout affected fire companies in the Centre Region and in the county as a whole?

Bair: This pandemic has had tremendous impact on emergency services, especially fire companies. I don’t really see much good from the pandemic overall, but there are three silver linings. One, with so many people out of work or working from home, volunteer fire companies have had very good access to their volunteers 24/7. Two, because people are sheltering in place, the number of emergencies is below normal volumes. And three, many fire company members and the citizens they serve have been reminded how important these organizations are to the community.

After those three, it’s all bad. The pandemic is financially devastating for many companies. Many companies in the county and throughout the state were struggling financially before this thing hit, and now it’s worse. There is the immediate loss of revenues due to canceled fundraisers, and with so many people out of work, it is likely donations will drop as well.

Like any household or business, the bills still come and they still need to be paid.

Training has stopped completely. This is a problem, because the fire service is an experience-based business and it is built around a core of physical skills. New recruits are on ice and hopefully we will not lose their interest before training can resume.

Current members whom we need to advance to replace natural attrition are also on hold, so it is likely this will impact us as we will deal with a temporary shortfall of personnel with necessary skills, such as drivers and operators, rescue specialties, etc.

People value the social aspect of the fire service, the ability to belong to something and to be on a team. Social distancing and shelter-in-place has a very negative impact on camaraderie and esprit de corps. This takes a toll on members and it makes recruiting very difficult.

The final downside for our department is the potential cost in community goodwill. We are very different from any other fire department in the county, and surrounding counties, in that we cover a very large, heavily populated area and we respond to two to six times the number of incidents of surrounding companies. We get two to three requests each day for drive-bys (birthdays, graduates, retirements, support of ill persons, etc.). Our apparatus is taxpayer-funded and we simply do not have the capacity to handle all of these requests. Therefore, we decline them all. Most people understand that situation, but others feel slighted. Some get very nasty about it.

CCG: What do you think the long-term impact will be for area fire companies? Will policies change for good? Will there be any lasting financial complications?

Bair: I am not an optimist in this regard. Serious financial pressure is likely to last well into 2021. Volunteer numbers have been in decline for decades and I expect that to continue. I doubt there will be a patriotic or public service bump like that after 9/11, where people suddenly have a desire to serve. That’s because of two reasons.

People who have lost a job or have had someone in their household lose a job will not be in a position to donate or give time to a volunteer fire company. They will need to be focused on their household’s recovery. Secondly, now that every person has been directly affected in some way by an infectious disease, people may be more hesitant to take the risks associated with volunteer service.

Firefighting has always had a significant element of risk, but until you’ve had a bad experience, that risk seemed remote. Now risk is front and center to all.

I hope there will be more altruism than fear; only time will tell.

I don’t see significant policy changes. The technology and conditions that drive firefighting tactics remains unchanged. At the higher level, our country has a short memory. Like so many other crises before this one, I suspect there will be a period of tossing money at things that end up not being sustained, and when the next pandemic hits years from now, there again won’t be enough of anything.

CCG: What can the public do to help support fire companies?

Bair: Join your local fire department as a firefighter or fire police officer if you are able to do so. Please be as financially generous as you can be. Please consider ending the current financial paradigms that rely on a small number of generous people in the community taking responsibility for funding the fire service. I think it is sad that people who are willing to risk their health and well-being on behalf of the community must also invest significant time and energy to raise funds to continue to have the “privilege” of taking these risks.

On the bigger picture and long-term, let’s decide how prepared we should be for these crises and then let’s resolve to remain prepared. This requires each of us to be involved to some degree in our governance, voting, and even just taking a bit of time to send an email with your thoughts or concerns to your elected officials is important and has impact.

CCG: How have firefighters stepped up to make a difference in their communities during this trying time?

Bair: Volunteer firefighters and fire police officers have always stepped up, and continue to step up by being available 24/7 for the community. Our volunteers are dealing with the same job losses, personal angst and hardships and family separations that everyone is, yet they continue to put all of that aside when duty calls. I am very proud of the men and women throughout the county and the state who continue to volunteer, despite the obvious personal risks presented by this pandemic. All of us, to varying degrees, have taken on more work during this period.

CCG: Thanks. Do you have anything else to add?

Bair: I earnestly hope that as social restrictions are relaxed, all people will continue to respect reality. The virus is not going to go away and a vaccine is not waiting around the corner. Wear a mask, socially distance and be diligent about hand-washing.

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

Vincent Corso is writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.
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