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Leadership Forum: Canada’s red cups

August 31, 2020 
By Matt Pegg

Without any doubt, 2020 has presented a number of unprecedented challenges for first responders, with COVID-19 at the forefront of not only international media coverage, but literally at the forefront of our daily lives.

In March, for the first time in more than 28 years, I stepped away from being directly connected with the fire service. I did so to take on the responsibility for leading the City of Toronto’s response to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

In that role, which has been the most demanding of my career, I had a front row seat to the incredible, selfless and amazing work our frontline first responders, healthcare professionals and essential and critical service workers continue to deliver, day in and day out, without question or fail.

The perspective I gained in this role left me feeling immensely grateful for all that these women and men have done and continue to do each day. Thousands of lives have been saved at your hands and I, for one, will be forever grateful.

As with any incident command operation, we quickly established the overarching strategic priorities that informed each and every decision throughout the response. Our priorities were as follows: to save lives, prevent our healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed and do all that we can to protect our social and financial economies.

Each and every day, our teams worked non-stop to deliver on these priorities. While serving as the COVID-19 Incident Commander, I made a number of observations that have had an impact on me. The one I will share with you this month, while seemingly odd, has been especially poignant for me.

COVID-19 caused me to realize that Canada’s first responders are truly the “red cups” of society. Come on, you know what I am talking about — the big red plastic drink cups that we have all used at one time or another. Let me explain why this analogy seems eerily accurate to me.

Red cups are there when we need them. While nobody may ever actually plan to need them, they are the perfect solution to a pressing or unplanned need. When the need arises, whether an impromptu get together, or the unexpected breakage of our regular glasses, the red cups are there, in an instant, to get the job done.

Red cups generally come in seemingly larger quantities than we feel we really need at the time we buy them, and can be rather cumbersome and even annoying to store when we don’t need them.

We often think about cutting back on the number of red cups that we keep on hand, as we get lulled into believing that we can always, quickly and easily get more when we need them.

If there is one thing that COVID-19 has taught us, it’s that things we take for granted can become scarce, and even unavailable, when big trouble hits. And so, we keep our supply of red cups in stock for when we need them most.

Red cups get us out of a jam, without celebration or ceremony, and just simply go to work meeting the need at hand. They are the perfect response to the unplanned or uncomfortable situation and are brilliantly effective in all that they do.

And so are our first responders, healthcare professionals and our essential and critical service workers – the perfect response to an emergency situation that threatens all that matters to us.

It is here that I sincerely hope that the parallels between our first responders and red cups ends though. These cups, despite their brilliance and usefulness, are easily disposed of and forgotten once the immediate pressing need has been met.

As we continue to transition from COVID-19 response to recovery, it will become increasingly easy for us to forget and disregard all that has been sacrificed, given and achieved by so many, especially considering that the majority of this service was largely invisible to most.

So, from one person who has been given the privilege of witnessing firsthand the amazing work our first responders, healthcare professionals and each of our critical and essential service workers delivered in response to COVID-19, I offer my sincere thanks.

While I too may quickly toss my next used red cup into the recycle bin, I won’t soon forget all that has been done by each of these public servants.

Cheers to each and every one of you, who have given so much, in response to the most challenging emergency our country and world have experienced in a very long time.

Matthew Pegg is the chief with Toronto Fire Services, having previously served in Georgina, Ajax and Brampton, Ont. Contact Matthew at and follow him on Twitter at @ChiefPeggTFS.

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