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Preparedness profile: Q&A with Fire Chief Dan Munsey

Preparedness profile: Q&A with Fire Chief Dan Munsey
Dan Munsey, shown here, became Fire Chief for San Bernardino County Fire in 2019.

The COVID-19 global pandemic has upended traditional approaches to incident response. As public safety agencies adapt to the new normal of pandemic preparedness, we look to industry experts for insight into the future of situational intelligence for public safety.

Dan Munsey took on the role of Fire Chief for San Bernardino County in November 2019. He began working at San Bernardino Fire in 1998 after three years serving the community of Yucca Valley, and led the department’s Special Operations before becoming Fire Chief. Munsey has been instrumental in bringing new technologies to San Bernardino public safety teams, making the county an important innovator for incident response tools. 

Interested in learning more about bringing situational intelligence to pandemic preparedness? Click here to see how Perimeter is responding to COVID-19. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

BAILEY FARREN, PERIMETER CEO: I remember when we first spoke, when you became Fire Chief of San Bernardino County Fire Protection District, you mentioned the “three Cs” around your strategic plan as Fire Chief. What were those?

DAN MUNSEY, SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY FIRE CHIEF: Community, communication, collaboration/cooperation. “Community” is engagement with your community. “Communication” is making sure that you’re communicating down, above, and across the chain of command. “Cooperation/collaboration” means you’re not a silo. Those three “C”s 100 percent work for COVID. 

You have to communicate with your stakeholders. We did it with Skype, Zoom, and we asked our doctor, early on, to help us co-host a Facebook Live with our organization to discuss COVID with our responders.  

You have to communicate up the chain to policymakers, to your elected officials, so that they know what your needs are, the direction, the vision, and that you are being supportive to other agencies. You’re not just operating in a silo. 

What are the most significant changes that public safety agencies are experiencing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Here’s the interesting thing: COVID really isn’t affecting many jurisdictions in California like it is in New York City, or in New Orleans. Out there is pretty devastated. But most areas in California, they’ve seen an incredible decrease in calls. Sure, we see COVID patients, and COVID’s everywhere, but everybody’s willing to use COVID as a change agent, and that’s the crazy opportunity here.

That’s what is just astonishing to me, is that this world of COVID response has presented opportunities for us to partner with private-public agencies — regardless of borders, jurisdiction, mission, vision, beliefs, even values — to face a common enemy. 

Leaders always look at change, and we know that you have to change, or you simply become irrelevant. But organizations, by their nature, don’t really like change. 

Chief Alan Brunacini from Phoenix Fire, who’s passed on now, always said there’s two things firefighters hate: the way it is, and change.

Right now, managing change has never been easier because everyone expects disruption. Because the opportunities are so great, you may not be able to create enough change just in your own organization, and that’s where the partnerships, the synergism, comes in. And when you’re facing an enemy that knows no boundaries, no jurisdiction, that has no solutions, then your partner is everywhere you look. 

For fire services, the biggest opportunity right now is our EMS system, which has been failing for years. We’ve known about it, but the politics around that problem are a mess. There are many, many different stakeholders that should be working together to address that problem but have never been aligned. 

… when you’re facing an enemy that knows no boundaries, no jurisdiction, that has no solutions, then your partner is everywhere you look.

And then all of a sudden COVID comes along, and we’re talking to insurance agencies, to private ambulance companies, to all the other fire departments, to public health, and we’re looking at our whole system underneath the veil of COVID. 

There’s so many opportunities, it’s a lot like the stock market, where you’re trying to evaluate which stocks are likely to fail, or which ones are likely to rebound quicker than others. What I can’t believe is that there’s so many people out there that are simply responding to failures in the system, and slapping band-aids down. 

It’s like the old cartoon when there’s water leaking, and they put a foot on the leak, and then it leaks somewhere else, and they put the other foot, then it’s leaking somewhere else and they put a brick on it, and their hands, and pretty soon they’re standing on their head, and they’re trying to stem all these leaks. It’s ridiculous. 

Not us. We’re leveraging these opportunities to make long-term changes and gains. It’s fantastic. Except that people are dying from our past failures.

What do you see as the biggest opportunities? And if agencies and organizations aren’t taking them now, what can they do to maximize the opportunity for change that COVID presents?

Number one: the opportunities that people are failing to see are partnerships with surrounding stakeholders. There are too many silos still, and people know better than to be in silos. They are missing the opportunity to look at the truly big picture for how we respond to COVID, and how we respond to other emergencies in the future.

Number two: a lot of organizations still don’t know how to integrate technology in their operations to make a difference. They don’t know what they don’t know, still. And so they are adopting technology for the adoption-of-technology purpose, not for the purpose of driving continuous improvement within their organization. 

Speaking of inter-departmental communication, what role has it played for the San Bernardino IMT (Incident Management Team) for pandemic response and preparedness efforts? I know last we spoke you had about 17 different agencies that were working together. How has that played out?

Really well. You know, initially there was some resistance to doing that, but once everybody got in the room and realized that, “Hey, we truly are focused on the same mission and vision here,” it all came together. 

You have to explain that you are going to take non-traditional approaches, that you are going to have a non-traditional mission, and that you are going to be willing to do things that you wouldn’t normally believe would be in your lane.

For example, the fire service helping public health plan their alternate care sites, or their field hospitals, or their drive-through testing. We’ve never done that, but we’re good at planning. Or using our fire department personnel to support these other agencies by doing something other than responding to 911 calls. Those are all opportunities that need to exist, that as a leader you have to create within your team.

In the COVID world, there is no “lane”. It’s only “direction”.

You have to sit down with them and say, “Look, there is no lane for us right now. Our mission is to be part of a team to combat the spread of COVID. And to do this, we need to think way out of the box. And it’s going to be more than just getting a 911 call and responding, it’s going to be more than just planning for fire service needs. It’s going to be assisting all agencies in everything they do. And, if they have a request, and we can fulfill it, we need to do it.”

There are two terms I use, “capability” and “capacity”. If we have the capacity and the capability to assist another agency, we need to do it, regardless of our traditional missions. 

That is the way we had to approach teamwork and partnerships in COVID, and never before have agencies done that, because we were taught to stay within our lane. “Don’t get out of that lane, you can’t do that for public health, that’s their lane!” And we’d actually stop people that get out of their lanes, and we’d bring them back. 

In the COVID world, there is no “lane”. It’s only “direction”.

So, thinking about “capability” and “capacity,” how can you improve communication about those things between departments?

Leaders have to communicate a lot together. And I have talked more to my fellow county directors, more to other area fire agencies, more to private ambulance companies, more to our elected officials, than I ever have. 

The leaders have to understand each other, and understand each agency’s needs. Because I have no idea what public health’s needs are, unless I’m talking to public health.

I think San Bernardino did a great job of facilitating those COVID department-head meetings. We met regularly on Zoom, and had quick conversations about common visions, goals, and what we were doing to support the mission. And through those conversations, you are able as a leader to identify the gaps, and how your agency may be able to fulfill those gaps.

Then, as a leader, you have to go back and communicate to your own organization what is the purpose, what we are doing, what’s the task, and what it looks like when it’s done. 

Communication has to occur. There has never been a busier time for leadership, I think, than in the last two months. There’s no such thing as absentee leadership during COVID, and if there is, then your organization failed to reach its full potential.

Are there any new technologies that you’ve explored for incident response during and following COVID, and/or are there any technologies that you’d been using before and are now using for different purposes?

Since we’re pretty tech-heavy anyway, what we did was we expanded our partnerships with technology to other agencies. So, we essentially brought other agencies onto our tech platforms and allowed them to connect. 

We had a CAD-fusion center where we were able to look at the private ambulance companies, where their ambulances were — for the first time ever. We were able to look at neighboring jurisdictions that weren’t in the same dispatch center, where their resources were. So, it really was taking our existing technology, and spreading it to our neighbors, and creating a better common operating platform, number one.

Number two is just using some very, very simple technology that has always existed, but adapting it to COVID. For instance, using Survey123 for welfare checks and temperature checks of our personnel, and using Google spreadsheets to track inventory down to the station and unit levels. 

That’s just simple technology that every agency has that we immediately leveraged for COVID. Technology can’t be so rigid that it can’t respond to the situation, we need to have the ability to adopt and adapt technology to our needs.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs Tech council did the same thing on an international level. We just used Survey123, and we built platforms very similar to what you see with Hopkins University for tracking COVID. We did it for tracking PPEs. We did it for tracking infected firefighters: who’s quarantined, who’s isolated, on a national level.

Technology can’t be so rigid that it can’t respond to the situation, we need to have the ability to adopt and adapt technology to our needs.

Then we also started to tie COVID in with our other upcoming challenges, for example the approaching fire season. We partnered with VirtualCRR and conducted some community risk reduction surveys based on COVID. 

We asked our residents: “What kind of information can we help you with?” And then a survey that reminded the public: “Hey, don’t forget that the fuels around you are appearing while you’re at stay-at-home. Get out there, and do some fuel modifications around your house, and protect yourself.”

You mentioned that flexibility was an essential quality for adapting technologies that you’ve been using, or for considering new technologies. What other qualities are you looking for when you consider new tech?

I don’t want a software engineer to have to adapt the technology for changing needs. I don’t want to have to call an agency and have them build a widget or a trigger or a report, I want to be able to do that myself. We have to continue to drive GIS information back to the end user.

In your opinion, what is the most important thing that the general public can do to help first responders and public safety agencies do their jobs better?

That’s easy, they can do four things. Cover their mouth, wash their hands, social distance — because our job is not to respond to emergencies, our job is to mitigate those emergencies before they occur. So, if the public is eliminating the risk, then we don’t put our first responders in danger, because there won’t be any danger.

The fourth thing is to continue to follow the government and CDC’s orders. You’ve washed your hands more in the last two months than you ever have in your entire life. But will you continue to do that moving forward? No. And how hard is it to wash your hands? It’s easy. But something that’s easy to do, is also easy to not do.

So, the public needs to take this seriously, and they are not. The first time the order came out people were actually very mindful. But you look around, not so much anymore. 

I see a lot of people around us now saying, “Oh, COVID’s not that bad, we should just go ahead and infect the whole population, survival of the fittest…” Well, you are saying that because the curve is flattened. 

But if the curve hadn’t flattened, you would truly see the hospitals inundated, you would truly see doctors having to make the tough decisions on who’s getting on a ventilator. That happened in Italy, that happened in China. It happened in New York City. Here in America.  

By Trevor Greenan. Questions? Get in touch at tgreenan@perimeterplatform.com.