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The Need for First Responders; Another COVID-19 Casualty

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tracy Rickman, Ygnacio “Nash” Flores and Don Mason
November 8, 2020

Considering what our country is undergoing with COVID-19, we need to look at the effects of the pandemic through the lens of the national capability and capacity to field first responders. With the nation experiencing unrest in some metropolitan areas and the effects of joblessness and business failures, we need to consider the emerging lack of trained first responders as a casualty of the pandemic too. While public safety services have continued, many people are unaware of reduced fire and law enforcement services due to COVID-19 infecting first responders. As first responders become affected by the virus, services are maintained through back-fill assignments causing officers to work more hours than typically assigned. Add to this the many protests and calls for defunding law enforcement, first responders are suffering from stress, burnout and other forms of work-related anxieties. There is little relief in adding personnel to the authorized staffing levels for most public safety agencies.

An exception to augmenting a first responder organization is seen when responding to wildfires. In California, Oregon, and Washington, firefighting efforts have been augmented by crews arriving from Canada, Australia and across the United States. Relying on outside resources in the fire community is not uncommon. However, it is uncommon in our law enforcement communities. While many agencies have mutual aid agreements, these partnerships address short term events and not a pandemic that is nearing a year of quarantine. The use of outside or outsourced people, comes with issues of liability, accountability, and responsibility.

The hiring of future first responders is compounded by the closure or reduction of training facilities—academies—for law enforcement, fire, EMT (emergency medical technician) and paramedic programs throughout the country. The cascading effects of reduced training opportunities impacts the recruiting pipeline which in turn affects retention of officers. Fire and law enforcement leaders are discussing the challenges of recruiting and retaining the next generation of first responders. COVID-19 exacerbated the factors that contribute to a diminished pool of Gen Zers willing to serve the public. Law enforcement, fire department personnel, EMT and paramedics dying in the line of duty, due to a deadly virus will undoubtedly have some ponder the decision to serve in this capacity.

The most prevalent conversation on this topic are the calls to defund the police. The consensus from those calling for defunding claim that the money can be used to address programs targeting social inequalities. This may be true, but caution needs to be exercised judiciously in decisions made because defunding equates to deprograming services. There has been and will continue to be a need for law enforcement services. Defunding law enforcement under the cloud of populism can go from, “Do we need the police?” to calls of, “We need the police!” The recruitment, background checks, psychological profile tests, physical fitness tests and other measures prior to being accepted into a police or fire academy are rigorous and not all succeed. This process can take up to year before a first responders starts working in an agency.

Allowing the festering of the deeper issues with law enforcement practices in the United States to continue while removing officers from the street does little to create meaningful reform. It will become more difficult to attract young adults in law enforcement careers. It will be even more difficult to convince family and friends to support their loved ones pursuing a career in law enforcement. Those that may be interested in law enforcement will elect to seek employment in another area. Media coverage of comments, scenes and debates tied to defunding police departments has negatively affected those considering a law enforcement career to seek employment opportunities elsewhere. Though not viewed as negatively as law enforcement, the fire and emergency medical services may be the next target of defunding as people seek to defund the large public programs in the name of progress.

It will take at least a decade before the downstream effects of COVID-19 and defunding on the career fields encompassing first responders are realized. Leaders of first responders—not only the chiefs, but civic and civil leaders—need to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 and defunding now. Reimaged marketing and recruiting campaigns, safely opening and operating professional academies and revising and adding to the training and education of all officers is something that needs to be done today.

Although the initial impact of COVID-19 was a reduction for the need of community services such as law enforcement and fire, it is slowly changing as cities see more activity as they get back to a “normal’ routine. As the country seeks normalcy and the vaccine, people are traveling more and interacting more. This has added to the calls for service for first responders.

Contemporary events created a gap in the qualified pool of people able to serve as future first responders. Planning to address the personnel gap needs to be addressed as a community and not solely by an agency. Administrators must now look at the future and identify their personnel needs and how long will it take to fill those positions with highly qualified and certified responders.


Authors:

Tracy Rickman
Ygnacio “Nash” Flores
Don Mason
All serve as faculty in Rio Hondo College’s Public Safety Department.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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