Author(s): John Montes. Published on May 7, 2020.

You Are the First Priority 

Why protecting yourself and your family is your first order of business during the pandemic 
As we enter the fourth month of what is now the most devastating world pandemic since the influenza scourge of 1918, emergency responders around the world have stepped up with selfless resolve, putting themselves at risk to give a stranger a better chance to live. Even as calls mount and long shifts bleed into one another, many responders instinctively try to do even more. It’s their nature to run forward, not retreat.

While that instinct is necessary to help communities persevere through this crisis, another reality is also true: Responders can’t care for others if they’ve been sidelined by illness or other reasons.

As COVID-19 has ripped through our communities, thousands of responders have been infected. Short of getting sick, I’ve heard from many responders who are exhausted, stressed, and near collapse. They are being asked to do more in higher-risk situations than ever before. And yet, as hard as it is, the old mantra in emergency services still must apply if we are to get through this: Make sure you come home at the end of your shift as healthy as when you left. Now is not the time to take unnecessary chances at work, miss a good night’s rest, or neglect your diet. Now is the time to prioritize your health and safety for the sake of our communities.

There are a number of important steps you can take to protect yourself in this time of crisis. First, establish limits about what you are comfortable doing and share those limits with your leadership. If you feel that you’re being asked to do something unsafe or beyond your capacity, you need to say something. If a new policy comes out that you don’t agree with, run your concerns through the proper channels before you’re out on the road doing something that makes you uncomfortable. During the Ebola outbreak in the United States in 2014, I heard about a fire department that issued powered air purifying respirators to its members, but no training on how to use them. This led to a situation where responders were wearing the masks incorrectly while providing care to suspected Ebola patients, a level of risk that no responder should ever face. Make sure you are properly trained in the use of new equipment—tell your leader that you are genuinely concerned and want to make sure you are doing things right.

You also need a plan for regularly checking on your coworkers and their families, and make sure coworkers have a plan to do that for you. This applies equally to people in the field and those in “nonessential” positions working from home. If your colleague in billing lives alone, who is going to call her every other week to make sure she has groceries? If another colleague is a responder and is working a 24-hour shift, who is going to check in with his family to make sure they have meals, the kids have medicine, and the pets have food and water? Have a plan.

If you’re like the vast majority of emergency responders around the world, you signed up for this job to make a difference; you wanted to be there to help people through the worst moments of their lives. In this historic moment, you have never been needed more by so many, and you are all making a critical difference. Most responders will gladly push themselves to the limit as long as the pandemic threat continues. But remember that it is in all of our best interests that you also take care of yourselves and your families so that you can be there to see this through to the end.

John Montes is specialist, emergency services public fire protection, at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler