Firefighters and masks: Survey highlights division within the ranks

3 highlights from our recent survey on public safety mask policies and usage

The use of face masks has been a hotly contested issue since COVID-19 emerged in the United States – and first responders have been on the front lines, not only of the pandemic but the mask debate as well.

Most public safety personnel – firefighters, EMTs, paramedics, and police and corrections officers – are required by department policy, directive or standard to wear a face mask to reduce COVID-19 transmission. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mouth- and nose-covering face masks reduce the dispersion of droplets from an infected individual, helping limit spread of the virus. Despite these recommendations, some individuals – including some first responders – have pushed back against mask mandates while off-duty or maintained limited use on duty.

In order to better understand firefighters’ mask-wearing habits, on- and off-duty, plus fire departments’ policies related to mask usage, the FireRescue1 team and the editors of Police1, Corrections1 and EMS1, conducted a survey across public safety disciplines. We received nearly 4,000 responses, approximately 450 from fire service personnel.

Here are three fire-focused highlights:

1. Firefighters are the public safety group least likely to be required to wear masks in buildings.

The survey asked a series of questions about the requirements for mask use while on-duty.

The requirement for face mask use in buildings was highest for corrections officers (87%) and lowest for firefighters (44%). It is concerning that so many fire, EMS and police respondents reported that their policy does not require the use of a face mask inside department buildings.

Presumably many of these buildings have shared common areas for training, working, resting and eating. Firefighters are encouraged to continue to examine whether some administrative or support personnel can work from home, set up indoor traffic flows to minimize close contact with other personnel, and determine when personnel should be donning face masks inside department buildings.

“Fire and EMS personnel are more attuned to the wobbling web of guidance coming out of the CDC, state and local health departments, and local hospitals/doctors,” said Fire Chief Marc Bashoor, FireRescue1’s executive editor. “We cannot allow that to cloud our judgment or prevent us from setting the example to the public.”

Bashoor continued: “Does a captain working alone in their office need to wear a mask? No.  Does the crew eating dinner together at the kitchen table need to wear masks? Not while they’re eating, but as soon as they’re done, they should either be masking up or breaking up.”

Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder added that the difference between wearing a mask at home vs. the firehouse is that you are being ordered to wear it in the firehouse because of the numerous people that members come in contact with. "We are family when it's convenient or when it favors some. In this case, if we are family, consider the older members, those who have kids with potential medical issues and protect them like family," he said.

2. Firefighters are split over face masks as a tool to promote safety and limit infection spread.

Respondents were asked to agree or disagree with a series of statements about face mask usefulness, impact on their job and community face mask requirements.

In response to the statement, “Wearing a face mask helps keep me safe,” approximately 53% of firefighter respondents answered Strongly Agree or Agree. Another 23% were neutral, and 24% answered Disagree or Strongly Disagree.

Another statement asked respondents for their agreement with the statement, “A face mask is an effective tool for reducing the spread of COVID-19.” Interestingly, fire respondents (36%) had the lowest level of agreement with this statement.

The use of face masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19 has been a central theme of public health messaging, which is often amplified by public safety agencies, for nearly four months. The high-level of disagreement with this statement amongst public safety personnel may speak to the difficulty of this message gaining traction with the public and the polarization around face mask use.

Goldfeder reminds firefighters they "you didn't cause this," and no one really seems to know how to best manage this pandemic, so being cautious and proactive is what's best for the overall good. “As we have seen in other nations, a non-selfish team effort with everyone focused on discipline and respect for others makes the virus go away,” he said. “In areas without discipline, the virus flourishes. We do know that. We do know that with any transmittable disease, a few simple steps can minimize the problem.” He added: “Is a mask an inconvenience? Sure, but so are other things we require on-duty firefighters to do and wear, but they are required to do it.”

3. Most firefighters don’t want to be mask-usage enforcers to the public.

One of the enduring controversies of the COVID-19 pandemic is the role of public safety personnel to enforce face mask mandates in public spaces and businesses. 

Approximately 38% of firefighter respondents agreed with the statement, “As a public safety official, I need to ask citizens to wear masks in areas where masks are mandated.”

Chief Bashoor agreed with the lack of enthusiasm for severing in an enforcement role: “No more than we enforce other expectations should we be required to enforce this. I believe we do much better setting examples of professionalism than attempting to force others to comply with a mandate we are not responsible (or have the authority) to enforce. Regardless, our mantra should always be about ‘doing the right thing.’ In the interest of the greater good, that should include demonstrating our support of wearing masks while we’re in public or areas with direct interaction.”

More on mask-wearing

The use of masks has clearly created a divide among public safety personnel and within the fire service. There’s a lot more data from the survey that impacts firefighters of all levels. Get the full survey results and analysis here.

Goldfeder underscored the impact of the virus on the fire service: "Sixty American fire and EMS members have died since March from COVID-19, and many are sick. Considering the fact that we lose just a few more than that annually as our total LODD loss, COVID-19 will essentially double the loss of American firefighters this year. That's a big deal."

He continued: “Firefighters are quick to remind people of the risk we are willing to take for others, so here is another chance to be a hero. Of course, this time, it's not dramatic and it's uncomfortable, so therefore some don't like it. That's OK, we still have to do it.”

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