1 year later: Looking back at how the fire service navigated the COVID-19 crisis

Marking a full year since the pandemic declaration, we recognize all that firefighters have endured – and how we can persevere


Ever have that recurring dream (or nightmare) where you keep running and running but just can’t get away from whatever’s chasing you? That’s how the past year has felt for so many first responders, including myself. Honestly, though, I don’t think we could have dreamt this odyssey. 

The fire service was once again confronted with the unknown – and rose to the challenge, even amid the pain and sacrifice. Firefighters have endured so much, with grace and focus, and I am incredibly proud to be a small part of this brotherhood and sisterhood.

Let’s look back at how the fire service navigated the crisis.

The fire service was once again confronted with the unknown – and rose to the challenge, even amid the pain and sacrifice.
The fire service was once again confronted with the unknown – and rose to the challenge, even amid the pain and sacrifice. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The early days: Ever-evolving guidance

I was an early naysayer, not purporting that the virus wasn’t real, more that it was probably just another flu. In fact, my wife and I were scheduled to take a cruise that started in mid-March – and we did board that ship. We just weren’t that worried.

Our two-week cruise ended up lasting just four days, as news emerged of the virus’s unbelievable contagion and fast spread through cruises. We felt very fortunate to actually make it OFF the ship. This was just the beginning of my realization of how big this was going to get.

Fire and EMS agencies began to see influxes of patients, some just “worried-well” but also many truly sick people.

Reliable information on this evolving illness was in short supply (or absent), and the federal political landscape didn’t provide the reassurance many were looking for. While Dr. Anthony Fauci became the face of virus information for many of us, the circus of information and disinformation swirling around him became exhausting, and frankly disheartening, from a public safety and public trust perspective.

I truly believe the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did the best they could with what they had, issuing update after update. I never viewed this as disinformation, but rather evolving response guidance for an unprecedented virus in our lifetime. I recall revising our new General Order three times IN ONE DAY.

Then there were the uncertainties of isolation and separation guidance – 7 days, 10 days, 14 days, quarantine, self-quarantine, isolate. For many, “the sky was falling.” For most of us, it was a slow ramp-up to what has had disastrous outcomes for many.

The nightmare grows: Personnel, financial issues emerge

Remember the dream? If there was any doubt, it truly became a nightmare, very quickly.

Fire departments found budgets under the stress of reduced revenue projections and competing expenditure needs. Sales tax, gas taxes, hotel/motel taxes – most user fees that support many of our budgets broadcast dire projections under the weight of rigid isolation measures sweeping the country. Although we had to deal with the typical congressional/presidential bickering, federal grants in the form of the CARES Act and COVID-supplemental programs would eventually provide help, albeit spotty and disjointed from this seat’s perspective.

Hiring was frozen, funding was stripped from funded positions, ambulances became stretched thin, fire departments that used to run everything suddenly didn’t run medicals. Prudent management? Hypocritical oath? We’ll leave that debate for another day, but certainly shortages of PPE, some equipment, and the lack of sufficient decontamination materials made proper protection simply unattainable at times.  

Recommendations and decontamination procedures were being tweaked and tweaked again. Hospitals were becoming overwhelmed, masks and face coverings were being debated, and once again, fire and EMS companies found themselves square in the middle of both a political debate and real-world disaster unfolding in community after community across the country. Hospitals set up tents in parking lots for initial triage, while fire service leaders I spoke with struggled to get information from their area health departments (no shock there, in my opinion).

By the end of March 2020, several firefighters had died from COVID-19. In subsequent months, 165 fighters and EMS personnel have succumbed to COVID-related illnesses. The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation is working through the necessary labyrinth of process to categorize these deaths. Whether these all make the PSOB threshold for line-of-duty death (LODD) status still remains to be seen.

[Read next: LODD tracking amid COVID-19 and the push to reduce firefighter fatalities]

A new mantra: “Time, Distance and Shielding”

“Time, Distance and Shielding” is the protection mantra for radiologic and hazmat incidents – a mantra quickly applied to the “new normal” that the pandemic created. With conferences canceled, and travel and training restricted, the term social distancing meant retraining ourselves in basic life etiquette.

Zoom, Teams and every other conference platform became instant hits in the sudden need to create distance. Small-team drills and online training took on new significance, as firefighters and EMS personnel simply can’t stop training. Practical work is an absolute necessity in our business – we just had to find smarter ways.

Station tours canceled, public interaction all but eliminated except for those emergency calls, and even then, we limited the number of responders going inside structures on EMS calls, especially if the caller met the criteria – criteria, mind you, that evolved over time.

Firefighters and medical personnel depended on call-takers to confirm whether exposure was likely, until ultimately, most of us just started wearing PPE on everything. Yes, some within our ranks refused to take it any more serious that “just another cold,” but as time wore on, most (including myself) became believers in the greater good of protecting yourself from others and protecting others from yourself. Masks are not a panacea, but they do have a significant effect.

Clearly, mask requirements, individual business requests, and varying levels of local and state mandates have NOT been universally accepted. We’ve seen arguments, even fights, and recently, a police officer escorting a mask-mandate-violator out of an establishment was shot and killed by the offender. Generally speaking, firefighters have done, and should continue to do, their part in the interest of general public safety and health. Masking, social distancing, testing, and vaccination. We should be leading the way.

With varying degrees of closures and limitations in place across the country, we’ve seen spikes in call volumes, like the ebb and flow of ocean waters, over the course of the past 12 months.

Testing time: New questions emerge

As testing rolled out, we once again witnessed the dysfunction between health departments and fire departments, with slow collaboration and information flow to the local chiefs and departments. I’m not quite sure how many incidents we need to prove that the public health network, at least at the local level, is in crisis in many communities across the country. There ARE examples of great working relationships and systems that work, but my experience, along with many others’, has laid witness to far more dysfunction that not.

As testing became more commonplace, many department personnel were left in a quandary, as insurance programs didn’t know how to deal with COVID-19 – was the exposure on duty or not? Is this a worker’s compensation issue or not and who’s paying the bill? Adding to general confusion was the unreliable test results.

Light at the end of the tunnel: Vaccine distribution

Then there was a sign of hope, with Operation Warp Speed fast-tracking vaccine development. As of this writing, three vaccines have been approved, with both the Moderna and Pfizer products already being widely distributed.

Many fire departments have pressed their personnel into action to help administer vaccines – a fairly unprecedented effort – and some are even offering incentives to encourage members to get the vaccine themselves. Not all departments can support that effort, but I support the efforts no less.

“Get there, get done, and get out”

Here we are – one year since the declaration of a pandemic. Still no face-to-face conferences, little travel, continued mask-wearing, and we’re still trying to navigate our way through the worst pandemic to strike the world since the 1918 Spanish flu.

The best way out is to follow the guidance of the experts: Wear your masks, get the vaccine, and just stay away from others whenever possible. As I say with highway incidents: “Get there, get done and get out,” so everyone can go home!

Editor’s Note: Do you have a unique COVID-19 story to tell? Email the editor at editor@firerescue1.com.

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