At the very end of December 2019, the World Health Organization office in China received a report about an unknown case of pneumonia. Who would have ever imagined that the report would be the beginning of a global pandemic – the likes we have never seen before?
The coronavirus first presented in the Wuhan region of the most populous country on earth, and quickly spread around the world ravaging location after location before most could properly prepare. Countries far away from Wuhan, that never imagined that the coronavirus would ever make it to their region, found themselves woefully behind on resources, restrictions, response, and recovery.
As I write this column in mid-May, I am still floored by all the changes we have witnessed since COVID-19 took hold. We’ve seen governments calling for shutdown of non-essential business, social distancing measures in place, mandates calling for masks and gloves to reduce infection, schools turning to online learning, employees toiling remotely, retailers instituting policies that limit services and access, and restaurants either shuttering or switching to takeout and delivery. We have been awed by the doctors, nurses and all those who are part of healthcare operations, as well as those who work in emergency response, transportation, grocery stores, distribution, trades, manufacturing and more. As the Grateful Dead famously said, “What a long, strange trip it’s been!”
As if the societal pains and loss of life associated with this pandemic were not enough, we are increasingly seeing signs of distress within the emergency response community that will be evident for a very long time.
When the virus first began to spread, we heard stories about (or personally dealt with) a lack of PPE, not to mention hoarding, price-gouging and outbidding. Procurement problems, playing games and paying astronomical prices to protect those on the frontline added insult to injury these past few months, not to mention tapped resources, reserves and the resolve of many who work as firefighters and EMS providers.
We saw, and continue to see, departments quarantining responders, setting up remote stations, and of course, ramping up overtime to meet the demands of COVID-19. Places like Washington, the first US state to experience the virus, and metro areas in New York, New Jersey and California were hit hard, but mid-size and small communities felt the ripple too. Many departments instituted changes to limit the amount of time responders are potentially exposed to the virus. A team of two that would normally respond, now consists of a “scout” who goes to the patient and assesses what is needed, while another member waits outside to reduce potential exposure. In the UK a deal was recently struck between the Fire Brigades Union, Fire Chiefs, and Fire and Rescue employers clearing the way for firefighters to drive ambulances, deliver food to those in need, and collect deceased bodies – roles outside normal response duties.
All these manpower changes come at a cost and will have a lingering effect on municipalities.
First, there is the impact on personnel. An International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) survey indicates that 935 fire department employees, including front-line firefighters, EMTs & paramedics have been laid off or furloughed to date, with as many as 30,000 fire department jobs projected to be lost this year and next.
According to the Journal of Emergency Medical Services (JEMS), the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates a budget gap of $650 billion for state governments in the US through the next two fiscal years. In that piece, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he needs $61 billion in federal support “or we will wind up aggravating the situation” by forcing cuts to local governments. “You know who local governments are? That’s police, firefighters. You want me to cut hospitals? Hospitals are the nurses and the doctors who just got us through this, and everyone celebrates as heroes. If you don’t fund the state, that’s who you’re cutting in terms of finances,” Cuomo said.
Jeff Johnson, executive of the Western Fire Chiefs said that fire leaders in the western part of the country are being asked to present budgets that represent between a 10% and a 25% reduction, with the states that are sales-tax dependent being hardest hit. Johnson explained, “There are two problems buried in there. First and foremost, at the time where we’re using the first responder medical aspect more than ever, we’re being asked to prepare for cuts and that’s not rational.” West Coast jurisdictions tend to provide EMS for jurisdictions. The second concern that Johnson illuminated centers around wildfire, a particularly prevalent issue in the western part of the US.
Three different sources share a similar picture, but despite a lack of equipment, long hours, learning that peers have become infected, heightened concern about spreading the virus to loved ones, and the notion of losing jobs – the men and women in the response community continue to deal with the harsh reality before them today. As a friend in the United Kingdom accurately stated, “Our members have stepped up to the plate, as always, to get the job done.”
Organizations that champion first responders are the least surprised that the valiant men and women in emergency response are continuing to put others first, but they are also not sitting back and taking it in stride. IAFC and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) have created online dashboards to show how the virus is affecting responders; they provide a glimpse of what this pandemic has done to the US fire service. To date, the IAFC dashboard shows that there have been 14,333 fire service exposures, with 12,470 quarantined, 710 diagnosed. Elsewhere on their site IAFC indicates there have been 26 firefighter deaths as of early May.
The efforts of firefighters now, in the past, and in the days ahead should not be in vain, or undervalued, for that matter. To that end, early on NFPA joined with IAFC, IAFF, the Congressional Fire Services Institute and the National Volunteer Fire Council to urge the Vice President of the US and the Department of Health and Human Services to recognize first responders as tier 1 front line personnel. Working collaboratively, these same organizations have appealed to Congress, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for more funds; and requested that DHS use their waiver authorities for the fiscal year (FY) 2020 Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Grant Program, including allowing departments to use funds for retention and rehiring. Likewise, FEMA was asked to waive the cost-share and maintenance of expenditures requirements for the FY2020 Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) Program. The waivers are critical but only if there is enough money to begin with.
In each of these efforts, top fire organizations emphasized that as America struggles to cope with the pandemic, fire and emergency medical services (EMS) personnel continue to do what it takes to keep communities safe. And now their jobs are made more difficult by the associated economic downturn, which is hitting local budgets.
Recent outreach referenced a report from the National League of Cities and the United States Conference of Mayors that shows that almost 100% of municipalities with populations greater than 50,000 anticipate revenue shortfalls in the coming year while 87% of municipalities with populations less than 50,000 anticipate a revenue shortfall in the next year. The data shows that the economic downturn is also likely to continue affecting fire departments and EMS agencies for years to come as municipal budgets tend to lag approximately two years behind more general economic recovery.
The mental health impact of COVID, is also being looked at, and rightly so. In many areas of the country, the situation is worsening and there is concern that first responders won’t get a break before the next (and possibly worse) wave of the coronavirus hits in the fall. In the meantime, those on the frontline are dealing with being infected, seeing their colleagues quarantined, operating differently while constantly wearing PPE, taking on additional shifts, hearing about budget cuts, and perhaps most concerning – worrying about bringing the dreaded virus home to loved ones. Despite the collective strength and resiliency of the fire service, experts believe that the coronavirus will almost certainly take its toll on the nation’s response community.
We won’t come through this pandemic without some deep scars – at least here in the US where I was able to glean more information about the COVID conundrums affecting the fire service. I am hopeful that the world will never forget the sacrifices our health care workers and responders have undertaken during this unprecedented time, in order to protect others. I am keenly interested in how COVID-19 has affected your response agency’s capabilities, budgets, and future. Let me know how you’re doing.
Be safe, stay healthy, and know that your work matters.
For more information, go to www.nfpa.org