For months, the world has grappled with a crisis of staggering proportions, the havoc imposed by COVID-19. International travel has been restricted, global trade has ground to a veritable halt, and entire nations have enacted virtually unprecedented countermeasures ranging from the enforcement of social distancing guidelines to the issuance of shelter-in-place orders.
Yet despite the assertiveness with which many governments—from the local to national levels—have responded, data from institutions like Johns Hopkins University have confirmed that well over a quarter-million lives have been lost to this virus so far. COVID-19’s grisly toll has been staggering, and its unrelenting siege has seen healthcare workers and first responders pushed to the brink of complete exhaustion.
And now, as many jurisdictions proceed toward societal re-openings, toward the relaxation of social isolation mandates, experts are issuing stark warnings of what could very well come next. Current modeling suggests three possible scenarios: smaller waves repeating for the next year or two, a larger wave this fall, or a “slow burn” of ongoing COVID-19 transmission. While the trajectory of the pandemic is not yet cast in stone, one thing appears clear, that the world’s top scientists harbor little doubt that we won’t be free of this plague anytime soon.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top virologist and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has stated that a near term resurgence of this virus is “inevitable”, that we’re likely in for “a bad fall and a bad winter”. Dr. Greg Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, intimated that a second wave of COVID-19 striking during the dawn of flu season could place a significant amount of pressure on healthcare systems, remarking that “often the second wave of a pandemic is worse”.
Meanwhile, Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, stated that the coronavirus “won’t stop until it infects 60 to 70 percent of people”. A startling figure that grimly echoes the estimates previously posited by Harvard’s preeminent epidemiologist, Dr. Marc Lipsitch.
With such dire forecasts from renowned experts firmly in mind, the question becomes, how can the fire service—including its EMS divisions—prepare for the proverbial “doomsday” scenario? How does such a multi-faceted community ready itself for the strains of prolonged crisis? And what kind of rampart can its many independent agencies construct to prevent the crippling of operational capability in the face of a swift-moving pathogen?
The possible solution to those issues may very well be the agency-level establishment of a reserve corps. But not necessarily in the form of the mass production-like forbearer spawned by the civil defense system of the World War II and Cold War eras. Nor would it take the shape of the commitment-heavy part-time model found in some American fire departments along the West Coast.
Instead, it would be a reserve corps concept that features two stark departures from its aforementioned predecessors. First, it would be geared toward retaining crisis-proven and established firefighters, not recruiting and training the uninitiated. And second, it wouldn’t be a supplement to daily operations, it’d be a less labor-intensive “in case of emergency break glass” asset.
With that said, the more direct structural ancestor may well be located in an unremarkable section of the US federal code. It’s there that a potentially more suitable template is contained, within a statute that says, in part:
In time of war or of national emergency declared by Congress, or when otherwise authorized by law, an authority designated by the Secretary concerned may, without the consent of the persons affected, order any unit, and any member not assigned to a unit organized to serve as a unit, of a reserve component under the jurisdiction of that Secretary to active duty for the duration of the war or emergency and for six months thereafter. However a member on an inactive status list or in a retired status may not be ordered to active duty under this subsection unless the Secretary concerned, with the approval of the Secretary of Defense in the case of the Secretary of a military department, determines that there are not enough qualified Reserves in an active status or in the inactive National Guard in the required category who are readily available.
So perhaps unsurprisingly, one source of concept influence comes from the government sector that the fire service has long looked to for significant organizational inspiration, the military. In this case, the United States military. And more specifically, its collective reserve components. The multi-pronged augmentative program that ensures the armed forces, even if enveloped by calamity, doesn’t merely possess ample structural redundancy to simply withstand the strains of crisis, but is poised to efficiently operate under even the most adverse of circumstances.
In that sense, it seems only natural that the fire service, the civilian world’s first—and sometimes only—line of defense against the destruction and paralysis caused by an incalculable number of possible catastrophes, would itself possess a fairly similar reserve corps element. A sizable cadre of veteran firefighters standing at the ready, capable of being seamlessly mustered into service on short-notice. A veritable doomsday preparedness program designed specifically to mitigate extraordinary incidents that could otherwise overwhelm the capabilities of the parent agency.
Now, for departments both large and small, a reserve corps wouldn’t be as imposing or unwieldy as the dry federal statute posted above might make it appear, or as onerous and costly as fire service precursors might suggest. Outside of those realms, a relative facsimile even exists within the fairly lean brethren first responder sector of law enforcement. Scores of police departments, of varying sizes, maintain auxiliaries or reservists. In the United States, countless locales still adhere to the wilder tenets of posse comitatus, the ancient law that allows sheriffs to deputize civilians.
For an unpolished example, we’ll examine a hypothetical reserve corps tailored for a modestly sized suburban paid-on-call fire department, a class of organization almost structurally predisposed to strain. Such a department’s reserve corps might only number a few dozen members. Its membership likely composed of: recently retired members, former members who recently left active service with the department prior to reaching retirement eligibility (perhaps due to issues that inhibited sustained active service), or even qualified current and former firefighters from other departments who moved and became jurisdictional émigrés.
Ostensibly, the cohort would be both fully-trained and within close chronological proximity to active service. Not dissimilar to the retention-minded broader military concept and the smaller scale law enforcement variant, they would surely drill less frequently than their active service counterparts, to the degree necessary to maintain tactical fitness, and certifications where applicable. Ideally, the reserve corps roster itself and the many tangible and intangible facets governing its operational readiness would be maintained by an active senior officer. And true to its name, the reserve corps would only be activated by municipal order, with service limited to the duration of a given emergency declaration.
With a compositional framework roughly fleshed out, it’s important to briefly describe how the aforementioned theoretical reserve corps might function. To provide a glimpse into how—in the face of a realistic crisis—it would look in motion.
So let’s imagine that the metropolitan area housing this particular suburb erupts as a hotspot amid the predicted second wave of COVID-19. If that fire department adheres to CDC guidelines on internal infection control—taking deliberate and aggressive action to prevent the organization itself from becoming a vector for community spread—its active strength stands to suffer rapid depletion.
With each passing day of pathogenic spread, either through direct incapacitation by illness or through mandated quarantine from possible exposure, the fire department’s—and its similarly situated mutual aid partners’—serviceable staff declines, perhaps by company or station-sized increments. EMS response times lengthen due to rising call volumes, beleaguered fire units then spend more time on-scene covering for overloaded EMS units, which in turn slows fire department response. And bit-by-bit, as active manpower is consumed by incapacitation, and despite great exhibitions of valiance and perseverance, the level of service provided tragically erodes.
While a reserve corps might not be able to prevent the initial straining of a fire department during times of great crisis, it could do well to lift the siege. It could backfill a depleted roster and facilitate the maintenance of an admirable level of service. It could bolster the ranks to allow for the efficient absorption of increased call volume. And it could provide a mechanism for the rotation of exhausted personnel, a mechanism by which respite could be provided and the health of a fire department’s membership—and the populace they serve—could be better safeguarded. It could be the tool that transforms the resilient frontline into a nigh unbreakable bastion.
Certainly, this is a highly simplistic view of a modern reserve corps concept. And without question, its implementation would not be devoid of preconditions or the sweat-eliciting challenges that are common to organizational evolution. For instance, it would virtually necessitate that the adopting department possesses a management apparatus and culture that’s conducive to encouraging continued or resumed service. It’d demand satisfying fundamental needs like drafting comprehensive SOPs/SOGs and cohesive protocols. Such a custom-fit concept may also require agency leadership to address complex issues ranging from pension and compensation implications to specific provisions contained within labor agreements.
However, the core hurdle that needs to be cleared is undoubtedly the single most tiring. It’s convincing traditionally expenditure-averse political actors that the benefits of constructing an operational rearguard are many, the risks are few, and the costs are well worth it. To be sure, the adoption of a reserve corps—the sensible provision of “in-house backup”—demands forcing a change upon policymaking culture, persuading officeholders of the need to realign budgetary priorities. In some cases, pointing out that entertaining notions of furloughing firefighters doesn’t pair well with routine issuances of public praise. Selling the reality that liability only multiplies when those closest to the danger are continually asked to do more with less.
The truth is that we live in an increasingly interconnected and volatile world. An era marked by rising call volumes, hefty expectations, and even an increase in the frequency of weather-related disasters capable of devastating entire continents. Gone are the days when globe-gripping pandemics were once-in-a-generation events. Arrived has the day when the ever in demand “all-risk, all-hazard” fire service’s stakeholders must view “doomsday planning” not as a binder-based issue of peripheral concern, but as a prudent and actionable preoccupation.