Duane Hagelgans

Duane Hagelgans op-ed columnist

As a first responder, I always thought it was my job to say “yes” to every ask, so I could help save the world. First responders across the globe are stepping up during the pandemic and this time of unrest to serve as community leaders.

But at what cost?

As a professor at Millersville University, teaching within the Center for Disaster Research and Education, I was asked by the university’s president to lead a team overseeing how we would respond to COVID-19-related issues this fall. Millersville, like many universities, opened in a drastically modified format — only lab classes are face to face, and there was only 25% capacity in student housing.

I agreed to co-lead the team and asked if it could be organized as an incident management team, with limited hand-picked members. (According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, an incident management team “provides on-scene incident management support during incidents or events that exceed a jurisdiction’s or agency’s capability or capacity.”)

After all, this is a public health emergency, so why would we not operate like it is an incident? It is an incident.

Our team holds daily briefings, as we would on any incident, and we deal with all of the issues that arise. When we plan in situations like this, we always have to be prepared to try things that we have not tried in the past. Most of us have never lived through a pandemic, so it is unlike our typical bread-and-butter day. We also need to make sure that when we are allowing team members to experiment that we make failure survivable (this is my philosophy).

We cannot succeed, and we cannot move forward, unless we are willing to take some chances, which means saying “yes.” Most of us in leadership roles got to those positions by doing whatever was asked as we came up through our careers. We were all going to save the world, one “yes” at a time.

The problem for many of us is that as we were always saying “yes,” we didn’t understand life/work balance. We each may have become the “go-to” person, but at what price? Family? Health? Friendships?

Learning to say “no” is not a bad thing. This is actually important to understand as we begin to rely more on the next generations, who want to do well, who want to make money, be successful and succeed, but not at the cost of their families, health and friends. Killing ourselves by never saying “no” because we are afraid we will be replaced, or someone else will get the recognition, or someone else will possibly know something we don’t, is a sure way to make sure we grow old quickly and probably lonely, too.

Just as we created a team at the university to oversee our COVID-19 response, we need to do a better job as leaders of developing our first responder teams.

I am working on course development for the National Fire Academy in which we are looking at four important words: safe, healthy, prepared and resilient. We are not talking merely about “safe fireground practices” — we are talking about overall well-being, mental health, life/work balance, a safe culture, a safe environment.

I remember when I first began teaching online a dozen years ago. I would ask a question, and if mere seconds went by with no one answering, I felt a weight on my chest (“Oh my gosh! Dead air!”). So, I would quickly jump in and start talking. Eventually, I understood that dead space was not a bad thing; it allowed time for the students to process. I came up with new ways to present the questions to assist with the conversation and teach myself that it wasn’t just up to me.

Is this how you get roped in to doing everything for your agency? You ask for volunteers or put together a committee, only to be disappointed. So you do it yourself.

We give in, because there was dead air space, in effect allowing ourselves to take on another task.

I’ll tell you a secret: People in your organizations know if they don’t raise their hand or do it right, you or someone else will do it, and they will be off the hook. I have learned to tell myself, “No, it is not for you to answer, or this is not your task, or your committee.” This has helped me tremendously through the years.

Maybe it is time for us as leaders to say “No, I am not going to be on that committee, or oversee that task." It is time to allow the next generation to create a culture that works for them.

It is never too late to help save the world by allowing others to say “yes” and lead the charge, while we say “no” and learn some safe, healthy, prepared and resilient practices for our own mental and physical well-being.

Duane Hagelgans is an associate professor at Millersville University, teaching within the Center for Disaster Research and Education. He retired as a chief officer with the Lancaster City Bureau of Fire in 2011 and currently is the fire commissioner for Blue Rock Regional Fire District. He also serves as the emergency management coordinator for Manor Township and Millersville Borough. Email: dhagelgans@millersville.edu