Being a First Responder During the COVID Pandemic

Fireman Weighs In On What It’s Like During Coronavirus

Scott Flanders has been a driver and engineer for a Texas fire department for more than 20 years. He recently provided an interview on what it’s like to be a first responder during the COVID pandemic. His candid answers make us even more thankful for the sacrifices emergency personnel make every day.

The Most Unsettling Aspect of the COVID Pandemic

The toughest part of working as a first responder during the COVID pandemic, Flanders says, is the uncertainty. Like the rest of us, first responders receive a constant stream of conflicting information. It’s hard to know how dangerous it is. There’s no clear information on exactly how infectious COVID is or how sick each individual might become.

First responders experience uncertainty because there’s no foolproof solution that has been proven to work. For example, experts advocate one type of mask, then switch to another. Because there aren’t clear guidelines, Scott said, he always feels an internal struggle wondering whether if what he does to provide aid is good enough, or if he might be unknowingly missing something that could save lives. 

“Our anxiety is on steroids,” he says, “because we know COVID kills people, but diabetes and heart attacks and car wrecks kill people too. We want to help people in emergencies the best way we can. And we can’t get any good answers.”

Changes Due to Social Distancing

Like most first responders, Flanders’ fire department at first had to scramble for personal protective equipment (PPE). “At first we had to collect N95 masks,” he said, “And send them off to be sterilized, recycled, and sent back. So it’s the biggest pandemic the world has ever seen and you’ve got first responders going in wearing recycled masks.” He said now they have switched to surgical masks, and they receive a fresh one daily.

“Social distancing is always a challenge when you’re working car accidents,” he said. “Because exposure is unavoidable. You’re in confined spaces with people and you just do what you have to do. But when it’s 110 degrees and you’re trying to rescue someone and there’s sweat everywhere, you wonder how much protection you get from a paper mask. My co-workers with little kids, they worry about taking something home to their family. At first, one of the local college campuses opened dorms, and a lot of first responders slept there to protect their families. That’s a huge sacrifice, but what do you do when there’s so much uncertainty?”

Social distancing impacts how first responders are able to interact with the public. Exposure could shut down whole trucks and make departments severely short-staffed. 

Where before EMS and firemen would work together on emergency calls, now if it’s not life-threatening, only the minimal personnel go in. Less support is available for teams and victims alike.

“Let’s say we respond to a call where someone has fallen,” Scott explained, “And one guy is exposed to someone who is asymptomatic. He doesn’t realize he’s COVID positive for three days. In that time, because of shift change, in my department, he could expose 18 firefighters and all the members of the public he helps. That one encounter could easily shut down two or three trucks. We always know it’s a possibility, and that adds to the uncertainty.”

Long-Term Psychological Effects

Over time, the constant unpredictability has a cumulative psychological effect. “Everyone is a lot more irritable because it’s different and unknown,” Flanders says. “People don’t like change in the first place. We already have a job where we’re exposed to physical danger, now there’s an added layer of risk no one fully understands. We have all these new guidelines and restrictions, so we’re constantly on edge.”

“Then there are the economic worries. Some of us have spouses who have to work from home, or who aren’t working at all, so people rely on our income. We’re worried because we know COVID has affected the economy, and city budgets were already paper-thin. Add that on top of the extra gear and stressed-out public and you keep first responders in a constant psychological pressure cooker.”

Supporting First Responders During Crisis

At RFE Connect, we’re thankful for the job our first responders do, especially during this time of enormous uncertainty. We want to do everything we can to make sure they have the tools to stay safe while saving lives.

We know that during emergencies, emergency personnel rely on technology like two-way portable land mobile radios to communicate. Many buildings are required to have an Emergency Responder Radio Coverage System (ERRC), but not all do. Upgrading your in-building system helps reduce the uncertainty during emergencies by enabling critical communication between police, fire, and paramedic teams. Find out if your building supports first responder efforts when you get in touch.