COVID-19: A generational leadership crisis

The deaths of fire, law enforcement, corrections and EMS leaders and personnel will have a decades-long impact on department operations, safety and capability


Chief Rick Todd, 58, died of COVID-19 on Sept. 23, 2020. Todd was a firefighter and paramedic and served the Salem Volunteer (West Virginia) Fire Department as chief for a remarkable 39 years.  

The impact of COVID-19 on public safety is real, significant and ongoing. Beyond today, public safety will continue to feel the impact of COVID-19 for years, if not decades, to come. Pandemic-related death, illness, early retirement and reluctance to serve in public safety are creating a generational leadership crisis.  

To date, dozens of fire service deathsEMS deathscorrections deaths and law enforcement deaths have been reported, a likely undercount of actual death. Those heart-wrenching obituaries include:  

  • Capt. Tommy Searcy, Houston (Texas) Fire Department. Searcy was the third Houston firefighter to die from the coronavirus. 

  • Deputy Chief Jason Dean, Clayton (NC) Fire Department. Dean was the deputy chief of operations and training and one of 17 Clayton firefighters who tested positive for the virus. 

  • Captain Bryant Anderson, Converse (Texas) Fire Department, died after 16 years of service. 

  • Paramedic Gerald "Jerry" Jones, Volusia County (Florida) EMS, served his county for 21 years. 

  • EMT Richard Seaberry, FDNY, was a 30-year EMS veteran who responded to rescue and recovery efforts at the World Trade Center after 9/11. 

  • Senior Detention Officer Erica McAdoo, Los Angeles Police Department, was the first LAPD officer to die of COVID-19.   

  • Warden Sandy McCain, Raymond Laborde Correctional Center in Louisiana, led the center for four years and served in the department of corrections for nearly three decades.  

  • Prison chaplain Walterio Rodriguez, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, was an 11-year veteran assigned to the Segovia Unit. Rodriquez became a chaplain after a career as a utility technician.  

  • Chief Mark Romutis, Ambridge (Pennsylvania) Police Department, was on his second chief assignment after previously serving Ellwood City. 

Pandemic-related death among public safety leaders is creating a generational leadership crisis within public safety. (Photo/PSOB)
Pandemic-related death among public safety leaders is creating a generational leadership crisis within public safety. (Photo/PSOB)

Age increases COVID-19 risks  

Morbidity and mortality data make it clear that older adults have an increased risk of serious illness, complications and death from COVID-19. The long-term impact of COVID-19 infection and the ability to return to full duty are unknown, and like the illnesses resulting from working rescue and recovery at the World Trade Center after 9/11, won’t be understood for many years.  

The mechanisms through which other medical conditions exacerbate COVID-19 illness are still being researched and explained, but we do know that older adults are more likely to have chronic medical conditions like obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease or failure and immunocompromise after cancer. Those conditions may worsen COVID-19 infection illness, duration and long-term recovery.   

Age increases knowledge, skills and abilities 

A firefighter, police officer, corrections officer or EMT/paramedic is constantly learning through on-the-job experiences, annual required training courses and ongoing individual self-improvement. When an experienced firefighter retires or dies in the line of duty, from any cause, the department and community also lose the accumulated wisdom of the firefighters whom the deceased served alongside.  

When public safety loses a veteran field provider, company officer, supervisor or chief, the department and community lose:  

  • Institutional knowledge. Every department has history, cultural moments, how-to and where-to-find knowledge that doesn’t appear in any policy manual, training curriculum or protocol document. Institutional knowledge, if not documented, is lost forever when the holder of that knowledge dies or leaves the department.  

  • Connections to a previous era. Experienced personnel pass down the stories from the “old days” about charismatic firefighters, police officers who went above and beyond, COs who found unexpected contraband and medics who made a miraculous save. Preserving memories of “how we used to do it” or “you would never believe” are important references for understanding modern response configurations, department policies, PPE requirements, and distribution of resources and personnel in a community.  

  • Formal training. Long-time field providers often promote into training positions and take their decades of hard-earned field knowledge to the academy, technical college or university. Field experiences or war stories, if dosed appropriately, enrich the curriculum for new learners and honor the experience of personnel renewing and refreshing their license or certification.  

  • Informal training. Many experienced providers are never given an official training assignment but are constantly teaching through their words or actions during an incident. Informal training often continues while cleaning the ambulance, rolling hose, collecting evidence or washing vehicles. The best informal training is a conversation in those in-between moments that the learner doesn’t even realize is training.  

  • Survivors made it through the bad times. Veteran public safety personnel are survivors who can reassure new hires and younger personnel that there is always light at the end of the tunnel. A police officer with 30 years’ experience has seen the downturns, as well as the return to normal, in the aftermath of the Rodney King riots, 9/11 terrorist attacks, 2008 recession, Ferguson riots and ambush deaths of five Dallas police officers in 2016. Similarly, a veteran EMT or paramedic remembers the “time before we wore gloves,” the HIV/AIDS concerns of the early 90s, and the preparedness lessons from H1N1 and Ebola.  

  • Relationships with other department leaders. Public safety leaders are better connected with other leaders in their community and neighboring communities than ever before. Mutual-aid task forces, regional healthcare coalitions and multi-agency investigations regularly bring together departments for planning meetings, tabletop training, full-scale exercises and after-action reviews. Every meeting, whether face-to-face in a meeting room, in the cold zone of an incident or via teleconference, is a relationship-building exercise. We work better together when we know and care about one another.  

  • Political relationships. Most chiefs serve multiple constituents – their personnel, their citizens and their elected officials. A successful public safety leader builds and nurtures those relationships through years and years of official and unofficial interactions. It can take a new leader months or years to build those relationships anew.  

Early, unexpected death is a leadership crisis 

Public safety, especially in volunteer fire and EMS, is graying. Worries about insufficient young people joining departments are regularly voiced. COVID-19 is exacerbating the insufficient replacement of baby boomers and Gen Xers in the public safety ranks.  

After the grieving, the early death of a chief or supervisor, from any cause, creates a leadership void in the department that needs to be quickly filled. How does a department replace the accumulated knowledge, experience and relationships of a 39-year fire chief? If you’ve experienced a sudden loss, you know it takes time to retrain your brain and reset your muscle memory to look for and look to a new leader.  

Until there is a widely available and efficacious coronavirus vaccine, public safety is in grave danger from COVID-19. There is no other cause of line-of-duty death that is preferentially and lethally targeting our most experienced leaders in such numbers. The National Police Foundation, International Association of Chiefs of Police and Department of Justice report that COVID-19 was the single highest cause of police officer line-of-duty deaths between March and July 2020.  

For every department, developing policies and supporting processes for ensuring continuity of operations and succession planning are critical tasks as we enter the next six months of our pandemic national emergency. It is not a question of “if” COVID-19 will impact your department, but “when.” Prepare now.  

Leaders who deny COVID-19  

The death of public safety leaders from COVID-19 is cause for worry and action. But even more concerning is the fire, EMS, corrections and law enforcement leaders who deny the severity of COVID-19 and fail to distribute and support lifesaving public health messages. The chiefs, captains and other leaders who blame the media, dispute the science and ignore reality are a threat to current operations and potentially a more significant cause of the generational leadership crisis at hand.  

Every public safety leader needs to be able to stand before their members, their community and their elected officials to clearly state that simple prevention actions – wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands, isolate if sick – are important, necessary for life safety, and supported by the best available science. Public safety leaders need to make sure their personnel follow and role-model department policies, adhere to local and state public health orders, and protect themselves from illness, both on- and off-duty.  

More deaths of current and rising leaders from COVID-19 exacerbates public safety’s generational leadership crisis, while also putting survivors at increased risk from the loss of knowledge, experience, relationships and history that accompanies each COVID-19 death.  

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