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Compassion and Vigilance

Jan K. Rader, Fire Chief: Using Compassion and Vigilance to Battle the Greatest Scourges of Our Time.

Fighting an epidemic is nothing new to Huntington, West Virginia, fire chief Jan Rader. She’s been on the front lines battling one of the most rampant plagues of our time, the opioid epidemic. From urban metropolises to small towns and across the entire economic spectrum, overdose deaths are skyrocketing throughout our country. In this battle, she knows she’s facing Goliath, yet she perseveres, collecting her strength and showing compassion to save lives in her community.

Now there’s another blight striking our nation, the coronavirus pandemic, and Rader will not stand down to this threat either. Instead, she is steadfast and sure to fight this second front. Her fire department is ready to face this challenge. Like others around the country, members of her department are putting their lives at risk to save folks like you and me from this dangerous foe. Courageous acts are often underreported, yet we recognize Rader, her team, and other front liners can make the difference between life and death.

Facing the Unseen Foe

We recently asked Rader about her perspective on the coronavirus threat in her community, and she graciously shared her thoughts with our readers. When asked how she, her family, friends, and colleagues are coping, she says, “Doing just fine. Staying prepared for a surge in our area.”

Known for her warm personality, Rader enjoys close contact with her friends, family, and coworkers. As chief of a fire department, she prepared her personnel for dealing with the coronavirus. She says, “It is difficult for our firefighters to social distance from each other in a fire station. We are self-screening twice daily for symptoms, and if anyone has a fever, they are not to come to work, or if at work, sent home.”They spend their days keeping the fire station clean as well as their fire apparatus, ready to spring into action when needed. “We have had to change our protocols on many of our 911 calls. The spirits are good of all the firefighters, and we are in constant contact with our local health department as well as our community partners.”

Fire departments across the country are employing new tactics and using protective gear in their fight against the virus. Still, we hear reports of courageous firefighters and EMS personnel who have fallen victim to this unseen enemy, some paying the ultimate price for helping their fellow man. Rader makes it her priority to stay informed on the latest updates from the government to ensure the safety of her workers while serving her community. Her advice for business leaders and the government is equally important, “Community partnerships are key. We all have a role to play. We need to support each other.”

Taking Personal Responsibility

Much responsibility rests on the public’s shoulders to help “flatten the curve,” which lowers the spread of infection. The government instructs us to use safety measures in our daily life. As more data comes in, the curve and guidelines often shift, but what holds true is the more safety precautions we take, the safer it is for ourselves and those around us, and the faster we’ll get over this pandemic. Rader suggests to, “Stay vigilant, prepared, but do not panic.”

We all look forward to the day when our lives can go back to normal. It may be a new kind of normal. But any sense of normalcy would be welcomed by a hurting nation. On what the impact will be on our lives post-COVID-19, Rader predicts, “I think that this will make us stronger on a personal level, community level, state level, and federal level.”

A Burning Desire to Save Lives

Rader is the first female fire chief serving in a professional capacity in the state of West Virginia, breaking through the male-dominated profession. She spent over 25 years saving lives and property in her community, and she also became a nurse. As a testament to her character, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia wrote of her for Time magazine, “She broke down barriers for young women across our state and continues to serve as the type of leader West Virginia and America need right now.”

When the opioid epidemic struck her community, she recognized the lack of coordinated effort to fix the problem. What was needed was a novel approach to treating the substance abuse disorder (the new term for addiction). As first responders, she knew that adjusting protocol was necessary to handle the crisis more effectively. But first responders were only a part of a much larger effort needed to help individuals with this brain disorder; cooperation with the community and agencies was essential for a sustainable solution.

Taking action, Rader began to listen to her patients by asking a series of questions and noticed how they reacted to the interaction. What she learned from them was shocking and enlightening. From the insights she gained, the community joined in a team effort to stem the tide of this epidemic. Programs were formed involving various support services within the community. Each program was designed to meet the individual needs of those who were suffering. First responders who were experiencing PTSD in dealing with this crisis, were given programs promoting mindfulness and wellbeing.

Success Abounds

The results are astounding, the programs helped decrease overdoses by 40% and overdose deaths by 50%, and first responders began exhibiting positivity in their interactions. The new compassionate response approach started in Huntington was proven effective and served as a model for other communities to adopt. Huntington gained national attention and was named as one of 35 champion cities by Bloomberg Philanthropies. A 2017 Netflix documentary, Heroin(e), featuring Rader and Huntington’s compassionate intervention, won an Emmy and was nominated for an Oscar. She was invited to give a TED Talk, which you can view and be inspired by, right here…

In 2018, Time 100 listed Rader as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. The West Virginia Municipal League presented her with the Lydia Main Breaking Boundaries Award for West Virginia Women of Achievement. She also earned a distinguished award in 2019 as the American Legion’s national firefighter of the year. Recently, Rader won Nexstar Media’s Remarkable Women Contest.We are hopeful in the long term to gain control and eventually defeat the opioid epidemic through community approaches like Rader’s. On an individual level, she encourages each one of us to make a difference in people’s lives by listening and being kind, which might help save a life. Perhaps her advice rings true for the current coronavirus crisis by helping to alleviate the anxiety people are experiencing by simply listening and being kind. And when the pandemic passes, we would have created a more profound sense of closeness and togetherness, something even a killer virus could not defeat.