Canadian Firefighter Magazine

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Between Alarms: Embracing the new norm

June 29, 2020
By Arjuna George


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The fire service is a creature of habit, forged by deep history, and is known to resist change at all cost. Now, we are witnessing an evolution of the service, as it is forced to evolve at unprecedented speeds right around the world. As the fire service navigates through the COVID-19 pandemic, we find ourselves operating in unchartered dynamic environments and what many are now calling the “new norm”.

Communicating the mission has never been more important than it is now, as we battle an enemy that no one knows. During a crisis like COVID-19, communicating relentlessly within your organization is critical to success. In the first few weeks of the pandemic, we found ourselves drowning in news updates, along with flurries of policy changes, and a total revamp of our first responder medical protocols. This was all on top of the incredible stress the pandemic was already putting on society. Communication in high stress and uncertain times requires timely, frequent, honest, and focused interactions. Silence creates fear and anxiety, where open dialogue with full transparency builds trust and eliminates panic of the unknown. As civil leaders, it is equally important to deliver messages of hope and optimism, both internally and in our communities.

Emergency services across the country have had to adapt at lightening speeds to the pandemic response. Many are using online training, virtual meetings and small group physical distancing drills and calls. The online video conference platforms have become our go-to tool for connecting with crews and spreading critical pandemic response updates. Many of us were not accustomed to meeting virtually and began missing the human component. We lost human touch and direct firefighter-to-firefighter experience. Although it was not what we are comfortable with, it did provide the opportunity to see each other, at least virtually, and provided the avenue to continue training.

These technological tools are fast becoming our new norm and may even overtake face-to-face meetings in the future. The comfort level for some is a challenge but firefighters always overcome and adapt. Do not fight the new norm. Embrace it and utilize all it offers.

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During these extraordinary times, we must pay extra attention to our mental health. As we navigate through the pandemic, we must stay the course, express gratitude and promote optimism. The responsibility rests with each and everyone of us. Our brothers, sisters, and the citizens depends on our strength and hopeful views.

COVID-19 has forced the fire service to be innovative in how we conduct business. Many Canadian fire departments revamped how they operate and found creative solutions to continue community enagagementwhile providing important services. To adapt we had to turn to other forms of delivering our services. Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue in British Columbia was remarkably successful in breaking new ground and delivering public outreach via live video conferencing or taped video. We were able to reach much larger audiences than normal and produce material that we can use again in the future. It not only built confidence in our presenters, but opened a whole new audience to our important fire and life safety messaging.

More innovation and creative opportunities arose across the country while cities and towns were under self isolation for weeks. The now famous drive-by birthdays provided our citizens, who where not able to celebrate birthdays or anniversaries with their loved ones, an opportunity to share their special day and have a moment of joy. Not only was it great for our community, but it proved to be just as important for our firefighters. For the firefighters to be able to do what they do (help people), it also proved critical to their own well-being. While our call volume went down, our sense of community spirit went up. Our team was able to help celebrate an historic milestone for one senior in our community for his 100th birthday, which turned out to be extremely rewarding for our firefighters.

As we keep hearing how we will deal with the “new norm”, we must take the opportunity to help change our culture and open ourselves up to new ways of doing things. Many silver linings have been revealed over these past months, so it’s imperative we not waste the opportunity to improve. The new norm opens so many new doors for effective communications using video and online video conferencing as a part of our operations and life. I believe we will be extra vigilant moving forward with our own personal health and hygiene, which, in turn, will help protect our organizations from illness. We will also learn invaluable lessons from COVID-19 that will help us improve our response models and management of large-scale events.

As we continue to be response ready between alarms, make use of the time to connect with your crews and your community while brewing positivity around you. Make the “new norm” the best norm and further improve our service to all. Be extra kind to one another. Take care of your health and your family. We are all in this together.


Arjuna George is chief of Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue in B.C. He has served on the department since 1997. Contact Arjuna at ageorge@saltspringfire.com


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