Fire/EMS volunteers fill gap in the time of COVID-19

Examining the extraordinary measures to recruit current and former volunteers to fill gaps in career staffing

By Bear Afkhami

How will emergency service units, fire apparatus and medical transport units be staffed if a significant number of career staff are unable to come to work?

Several months ago, this question was a “what if” scenario only on the minds of the highest ranks of command officers, emergency management leaders and public health planners. Today, the question is on the mind of every first responder – and perhaps a large segment of the general public.

When COVID-19 prevents firefighters and EMTs from filling their roles, who fills the gap? The answer, time and again, is volunteers.
When COVID-19 prevents firefighters and EMTs from filling their roles, who fills the gap? The answer, time and again, is volunteers. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

When COVID-19 prevents firefighters and EMTs from filling their roles, who fills the gap? The answer, time and again, is volunteers.

Extraordinary measures of support

Many proactive jurisdictions have taken extraordinary measures to recruit current and former volunteers to step in and fill current and potential gaps in career staffing. Some actions include the extension of BLS and ALS license expiration dates, reinstating lapsed BLS and ALS certifications, recruiting inactive or retired volunteer EMTs and, of course, using volunteer EMTs to fill positions.

Many states, among them Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey, took an immediate step to extend the dates of expiring BLS and ALS licenses until a time after emergency pandemic proclamations were lifted. These steps not only considered the inability to deliver a recertification course, but also multiplied the number of EMS clinicians available to assist with COVID-19 response.

Early in the pandemic and along with the state’s proclamation of the catastrophic health emergency, the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems (MIEMSS) announced that it was not only issuing provisional licenses to EMS clinicians certified in other states, but also to individuals with expired BLS and ALS licenses. With the goal of recruiting experienced but inactive volunteers, Maryland’s EMS leadership reinstated BLS certifications that expired within up to 10 years and ALS licenses expired within five years.

As pandemic surge modeling continued to advance, it quickly became clear to many jurisdictions that in the coming weeks and even months, the challenge would be to not only respond to calls but to also address a potential loss of available workforce due to infection. The call went out to rely on active volunteers and to recruit those inactive or retired.

Stepping up for service

As soon as the call went out to recruit inactive and former credentialed volunteers, Chief Bill Dunn sprang into action. As fire chief of the Glen Echo Fire Department (GEFD), a volunteer fire/EMS department part of Maryland’s Montgomery County Fire Rescue Services, he recognized the severity of the situation and urgent need.

According to Dunn, a handful of former members immediately volunteered, giving the department the extra ambulance drivers and EMTs needed to put a second ambulance in service to help boost career staffing. Dunn said that he “could not be more proud to be their fire chief,” when reflecting upon the dedication his members have shown during the pandemic.

Neighboring departments, such as the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department (RVFD) within the same system, have been able to use their volunteers to staff two additional EMS transport units to boost career staffing.

As New York City’s EMS calls increased and more EMTs had to stay home due to exposure or being sick, the FDNY requested mutual aid from the 30 volunteer ambulance services located within the five boroughs. These volunteer services, normally providing services to their neighborhoods, are now responding to calls all over the city. Similar actions were taken in New Orleans, where the city decided to use volunteers with previous experience to staff ambulances.

Rising to the occasion

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to place strain on departments and responders, both volunteers and career firefighters and EMS clinicians will be asked to do more. As with other times of national emergency, responders from all around the country will rise to the occasion and provide critical services to 911 callers. The importance of having volunteers to respond to surges in future pandemics, and other emergencies, may drive many jurisdictions to expand how they work with volunteer services.

About the Author

Bear Afkhami has over 10 years of service in the emergency services sector in numerous fire service, continuity of operations planning (COOP), military and intelligence roles. Afkhami is currently director of innovation and development at JMA Solutions.

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