PRESSED INTO ACTION: While the Fire Department initially limited the kinds of medical calls firefighters could respond to out of concern that any of them who contracted the coronavirus could wind up infecting colleagues, it is now deploying those who are also Emergency Medical Technicians or have Certified First-Responder-Defibrillator status on a volunteer basis to handle less-critical calls while traveling in 25 rapid-response vehicles provided by the Special Operations Command. Mayor Bill de Blasio visits FDNY EMS in Queens. FDNY EMS Station 50, Jamaica, NY. Thursday, April 02, 2020

More than 300 firefighters have tested positive for the coronavirus, fire union officials said April 2, but it has not forced the closing of any firehouses, and they said volunteers with appropriate training were responding to "less-critical" medical calls to help lighten the load on Emergency Medical Service workers who have been stretched thin treating patients.

"We're doing what we're asked to do," Uniformed Firefighters Association President Gerard Fitzgerald said in a phone interview. But he noted that the sick rate for firefighters was 16 percent, which for his members translated to about 1,300 being absent.

Concerns About Family

Beyond the illnesses, he said, among those able to work, "There's frustration. Mostly concerns about their family, that they could bring it home and infect them."

Although the Fire Department had not broken out how many of its employees who had tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 6 sources including Uniformed Fire Officers Association President Jake Lemonda indicated that of 493 department workers, more than 300 were firefighters.

"The Firefighters and fire officers, we do what we do: we accept the challenge and take it head-on," he said. "It's a challenge that has to be managed almost hourly, because things are changing that rapidly."  

Noting that EMS had an incredible 6,500 calls March 31, and just over 5,900 the following day, Mr. Lemonda said, "EMS is being overrun—they just can't keep up with the sheer volume. The system's at a breakpoint—they just can't physically handle all the calls coming in."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is providing some relief, sending 250 ambulances, while EMTs from around the nation were also being imported to help with the crunch.

Rapid-Response Troops

In addition, the two firefighter-union leaders said, the FDNY was now deploying 25 rapid-response vehicles from its Special Operations Command that will be staffed primarily by firefighters who are also EMTs or have the Certified First Responder-Defibrillator training to respond to medical calls.

Referring to the vehicles, which he said in some cases will also have EMTs on board, Mr. Fitzgerald said, "They're like an ambulance, but they can't transport. So they treat [patients] and then wait for the ambulance" if the patient requires hospitalization.

The Fire Department in mid-March decided not to have firefighters respond to calls where there was the possibility that the patient would have the coronavirus because of concern that an entire firehouse might later become infected.

But Mr. Lemonda said that despite individual firefighters' concerns about contracting the disease and infecting family members, the department had been able to staff the rapid-response vehicles strictly relying on volunteers.

Mr. Fitzgerald said that while the department has continued deploying firefighters even if those with whom they had worked were sidelined with COVID-19, "If you become symptomatic, you don't have to test positive—you're put on sick leave."

No Firehouse Closings

He added, "We have some firehouses that have numerous firefighters who tested positive," but that no firehouse had been closed or even taken out of service for a period of time.

Chief Lemonda said, "Closing firehouses is not even an option at this time. The department so far has been able to balance the manpower" to avoid doing so.

"That," he added, "would be a dire, last option."

Of those who tested positive, the UFOA leader said, "Some members have been hospitalized. Some have been released; I think we have one or two still in. A majority of them have been quarantined at home."

Even while keeping their distance from each other, Mr. Lemonda said, union board members were reaching out to every firehouse daily, making contact with roughly 90 percent on average, and "speaking to the officers directly, hearing their issues."

'Concerned, But...'

Asked about morale, he said, "The general consenus across the city is our members are concerned, they need the [personal protective equipment] provided to them, but we all understand there's a job to do, and the attitude across the board is positive."

Mr. Fitzgerald acknowledged regarding the stress taken on by his members, "It's a lot, because the disease and the number of [victims] keeps climbing, and the department puts in a policy and it may be changed a week later" due to altered circumstances.

Mr. Lemonda said, "This is an unprecedented event, but we are still there, ready to continue the mission."

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