Here we are mid-winter 2021 and I can’t help but to think that, under normal times, we would be focusing the bulk of our time on operational policy and strategy – i.e. planning for the next snow storm, rolling out the newest training initiative, or evaluating the best use of the Department’s resources. But these are not normal times. Don’t get me wrong – we must still address each of these, and many more, in order to protect our city, keep our members safe, and ensure the Department is running smoothly and efficiently. However, as the Covid pandemic continues to rage on and dominate daily life, we have no choice but to continue preparing for future challenges – whatever they may be.
Fortunately, firefighters, EMTs and paramedics are always up to the task. There is perhaps no other profession better equipped – figuratively and literally – to manage the sudden and acute consequences of large-scale catastrophes than our first responders. From day one, the cognitive ability to respond to unknown danger is transfused into their blood, and implanted into their DNA. From the earliest days at the academy they are ingrained with the skills necessary to handle life-or-death situations and trained to do their job under stress so they become accustomed to operating safely and proficiently. These contrived abilities, along with God-given courage, provides guidance and purpose; and it remains with them at all times – both on and off duty. At every assignment, and in every rank, a first responder’s professionalism and duty to act can always be counted on.
A few weeks before the tidal wave of the pandemic first hit New York City in the early spring of 2020, our chief medical officer estimated that staffing levels in the FDNY could potentially decline up to 40% at the peak of the surge, at a time when emergency-response workload would be the greatest. The expected physical and psychological impact on our workforce was grave, and the dire outlook on our ability to respond was alarming. Even though an unrivalled challenge stood before us, I knew we would handle it. I was certain that our firefighters, EMTs and paramedics would rise to the occasion. You may wonder ‘How could you know?’ – certainly a valid question considering we had not seen such widespread and contagious disease in over 100 years.
I attribute the confidence I had in our response to my experience 19 years earlier – when two commercial airliners were flown into two 110-storey office buildings in lower Manhattan. Though it occurred a generation ago, that tragedy is embedded in my DNA. On that fateful day, the stakes were never higher, the conditions never more severe and the risks never greater. As the world watched in utter shock, FDNY members courageously responded without hesitation, put it all on the line and executed the greatest rescue mission in New York City history. It has been said that on 9/11 the FDNY had its greatest moment on its worst day. Hence, therein lay my trust in the ability of the FDNY to respond to the looming Covid catastrophe.
As the calamitous days during March and April unfolded, the parallels between the emergency response to the Covid pandemic and 9/11 were being drawn. From an operational perspective – a public health crisis involving a deadly microscopic pathogen versus a terrorist attack resulting in a massive conflagration and structural collapse – the differences between the two could not have been more stark. Yet, the same bravery and determination was ever-present and unwavering at each.
In very short order, the insidious virus began to take its toll on our Department. With every passing hour the number of deaths in NYC continued to climb, forcing our members to deal with seemingly unending despair. As expected, hundreds of our own were contracting the disease as well, taking them out of the emergency response effort for weeks and increasing the burden on those healthy enough to remain full-duty. Many became hospitalized and, sadly, several had succumbed to their illness.
Fearful of bringing Covid home to their own families, some members chose to sleep in their cars or hotel rooms for days on end. Soon, staffing levels in the Department were running precariously low. Adjustments were made to schedules so that those who were healthy enough to remain working were required to do so more often.
Once medically cleared, those who recovered from Covid illness came back to the front lines to provide much-needed relief to a worn and weary workforce. Through it all, not once did they believe this was somebody else’s problem to solve. Against the odds, they were going to get it done. Despite facing certain danger and unknown risk, it was their duty to keep responding. As of this writing, more than 6,600 FDNY members have returned to full duty from a Covid diagnosis. I am in awe of their dedication, and so extremely proud to be a leader in this great Department.
The fires and emergencies that firefighters, EMTs and paramedics respond to on a daily basis are dangerous, challenging and unpredictable. They regularly put their lives on the line to protect life and property in communities all across the nation and all across the globe. With rigorous and ongoing training programmes, they are prepared to operate safely and efficiently at all types of incidents. Fortunately for us all, it is their commitment to service and willingness to sacrifice that truly makes them extraordinary, especially when dealing with unimaginable disasters like terrorist attacks and global pandemics. Rest assured, at the next catastrophic event, leaders in the fire and emergency services can be certain their heroes will step up to faithfully discharge their duties and fulfil the mission – it’s in their DNA.