Although I think I wore it well most of the year, 2020 has been a definite struggle for me just as it has been for many of you, but probably not for the reasons you would think. If anything, the pandemic hasn’t held me back, it has exposed how much I have held myself back. As COVID-19 forced us to slow down and stay home, I missed so many opportunities to improve as a person, parent, spouse, firefighter, officer, leader, and instructor. Instead, I submerged myself in the depths of interactive loathing, mindlessly wasting away instead of taking advantage of the time with people and things I probably won’t have after we overcome this latest societal obstacle. While it has taken me longer than I would like to admit, the pandemic has taught me many of us are spending far too much time and energy trying to be seen as an influence instead of working hard to actually be influential.
You may have noticed I haven’t had much to say about the pandemic. My lack of scientific prowess combined with an ever-growing distain for politics has made it a situation I try to steer clear of whenever possible. I won’t speak for anyone else, but I will be direct in saying that I certainly underestimated the situation when it presented itself in the beginning of 2020. If you had told me then that almost a year later, we would still be struggling to find disinfectant, hoarding toilet paper, limiting seating in restaurants, and playing most professional sports without fans, I probably would have questioned your mental status. However, after nearly a year of learning to live with COVID -19, the fire service is still struggling to conduct in person training events and keep the roster separated while maintaining togetherness. We are still routinely placing personnel in quarantine and in some cases being forced to brown out companies to prevent department wide outbreaks. Unfortunately, the only thing certain about COVID-19 is that it won’t be going anywhere.
Quite honestly, I don’t care where anyone stands on the virus and/or our handling of it. The underlying societal shock that it did not somehow magically evaporate at the ballot box or when the calendar year changed metaphorically tells me all I need to know on that front (refer to my opening remarks). Although professionally we must remain current with the endless list of signs, symptoms, treatments, and PPE considerations that evolve with the corresponding scientific research, I think it is safe to say we should leave the overall solutions to people far more educated and intelligent than us. However, I do feel we should discuss some disheartening trends in fire service culture emerging from the restrictions which have accompanied the COVID-19 response…
I would argue two very distinct types of people emerged from the impact of the pandemic; those who saw it as an opportunity and those who turned it into a setback. On one hand we saw many individuals who took advantage of the fact they could really only go two places; home and if they were lucky, work. As the extracurricular fire service events were forcefully removed from our calendars, they grasped the opportunity to focus more time on family, fitness, hobbies, reading, studying for future promotions, and other personal ventures that typically fell through the cracks during the frantic pace of our pre-pandemic lives. I commend these individuals for finding an inner peace during these trying times because quite frankly, I have not.
This brings us to the other hand, a pit where many of us seem to have fallen as the pandemic grabbed hold of our routines. For me, I spent the vast majority of 2020 in some kind of pseudo holding pattern like an aircraft low on fuel, circling the runway, unable to get clearance to land. There was no certainty, no schedule, and no escape. Commitments were postponed, accomplishments put on hold, and annual family plans either fell by the wayside or were carried out amid constant judgement from those who felt living your life meant intentionally jeopardizing someone else’s. In a year where I had so much to look forward to for myself and my family, I found the motivation slowly draining from my soul as I allowed the societal pause to turn me into exactly what I hate the most; someone who goes through the motions. In a very short time, I went from all in, all the time to missing workouts, eating like crap, missing deadlines, and existing rather than excelling. I allowed initial restrictions to morph not only into excuses, but believable ones at that. Before I knew it, I was living my own version of the movie Groundhog’s Day, struggling to keep some type of normalcy in the face of constant uncertainty.
Initially, technology was the obvious choice for ensuring we stayed somewhat connected to each other and the job. The fire service flocked to social media, video conferencing, and webinars. Hell, we even put together a fabulous collection of passionate firefighters from across the continent with the Unlock Your Culture Conference, a successful venture that provided great content along with an amazing donation to some great fire service charities. But as 2020 tightened its clutches, technology mutated into more of an enemy than an instrument. Departments moved all or most training to computers, ignoring the need for actual psychomotor evolutions and repetition. Most real, hands-on instruction and multiple company training was continuously postponed or cancelled altogether. Standards were relaxed and even lowered as we fought to keep people apart at all costs. We handed out excuses left and right that empowered the lazy and absolved the motivated. Even the biggest fire service events couldn’t weather the storm, constantly changing dates which created glimmers of hope that would eventually become just another check in disappointment column.
As technology became our only outlet both personally and professionally, I noticed a disturbing trend. Every time I logged in, I found post after post filled with division, confrontation, and even downright hatred. The more I clicked, commented, and shared, the worse it seemed to become. My friends list quickly became a self-appointed panel of infectious disease control experts and civil rights lawyers overnight. The fire service interwebs dried up into a virtual salt lick where every guy was just worried about being saltier than the next. Legitimate questions were met with trolling responses of personal preference that neglected to answer the original inquiry altogether, but somehow shamed the poor soul for even asking in the first place. And despite doubling down on my attempts to share meaningless memes and gifs as a distraction, I found the internet was no longer a place to connect and escape, but instead the second coming of high school popularity where you either agreed or were outcast with no in between.
Without in person classes and conferences to bring us together, many took to the internet in an effort to fortify their stock, driving each other apart in the process. A selfish undertone set in that essentially dismissed anyone who didn’t follow this, attend that, or support the right “them” (and I am not talking about the citizens). Cliques continued to emerge as we were reluctantly forced to choose our corners in the emerging social media ego fest. Much like the political debates that infected our screens, many stooped to challenging credentials, pointing out shortcomings, accusing others of intellectual property theft (for sharing the same fucking beliefs), and focused on why another person shouldn’t be heard instead of sticking to what they bring to the table themselves. It feels like we are slowing fading away from the vision of a united fire service across the country and sliding back to the regional approaches we once claimed were holding us back as a profession. Sadly, I have watched a growing number of sound fire service minds take a step back or retreat to silence during these times to maintain their sanity as many people and pages that once kept them afloat have somehow become the very weights pulling us under. And for someone who has often advocated the benefits of a curated social media presence, I am overwhelmed by the negativity that now seems to consume mine.
I can’t help but wonder if the removal of events that once united like minds has involuntarily forced us to look in the mirror at our accomplishments abroad vs. our accomplishments at home. Furthermore, could the feedback many of us receive from our fire service ventures be more of an affirmation from those who share our views than an accurate reflection of progress amongst our peers? Maybe constantly hanging out with people that “get it” blinded us from the droves that still do not. Perhaps we have been falsely comforted by frequent retreats to places where comradery and brotherhood thrive, shielding us from the harsh reality that most of us do not operate in such environments, a truth we have been forced to accept in their absence. Regardless, without the recharge such gatherings provided, many once passionate minds are struggling to do the very things they are so well known for.
The pandemic fire service has made it difficult to deny that most of us are far more invested in improving other jurisdictions than we are our own. While we all know putting ourselves out there can make it a struggle within our own walls, we should be dumping more energy into what we do on our bay floors than what is on our Facebook walls. In reality the grind hasn’t changed even if the way we are going about it has. The job is still the job and the mission still doesn’t give a shit about what we have to overcome to carry out our duties. We still need to maintain our readiness, fitness, knowledge, and skills whether that means wearing a mask and standing 6 feet apart or not. There were no valid excuses prior to the pandemic just as there are none during it.
We can NOT allow ourselves to let this pandemic destroy the fabric of our cultures. Instead, we must be the problem solvers we pride ourselves in being and find ways to restore the momentum that passion, dedication, and accountability were gaining before we locked everything down. Take advantage of not being allowed to go anywhere by dumping everything you have into where you are. While many restrictions have been edited, amended, or even removed (depending on where you live), it seems that this “new normal”, as the media likes to call it, is probably going to be around longer than we like. Use this time to really assess where things stand for you as a member, crew, and department. Maybe redefining normal is a blessing in disguise for your department. Maybe this is the perfect justification to evolve or maybe we just need to adapt how we functioned before COVID-19 sucker punched us!
Remember, the citizens need us now more than ever. This is one of those rare times in history where the fire department is more than just another essential service, we are a sign of hope to the community when there doesn’t seem to be any. The key word being COMMUNITY, defined as a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals, something we seem to be overlooking as a profession. For those who hit the ground running and rolled with the punches, keep inspiring those who didn’t. For those who fell into the pandemic pit, let’s all help each other climb out and get back on track. Let’s end the bullshit, the egos, and smear campaigns. Let’s stop telling each other how good we think we are and get back to showing our citizens how great we can actually be...