By Chief Ronald J. Siarnicki, Executive Director
On March 13, 2020, President Trump declared the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, outbreak a National Emergency. Since then, life has inarguably and most drastically changed for all of us. Global travel restrictions grounded all international travel. State-regulated stay-at-home orders suspended non-essential in-person business operations. The White House and almost every local jurisdiction issued social distancing guidelines, and schools were closed. The country saw the steepest decrease in employment rates since the Depression. One thing remained constant, firefighters, EMS responders, and all first responders continued to answer the calls for service.
The United States economy was essentially taken offline, and society entered a pandemic-induced coma awaiting containment of the virus. The United States COVID-19 death toll tops 87,000, and more than 1.46 million confirmed COVID-19 cases have been reported.
The surge in COVID-19 cases has overwhelmed many emergency services and hospital systems and has caused substantial Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) shortages to sweep across the nation. Regardless of the crushing load of need, firefighters, EMT’s and paramedics continue to answer the call as they do whenever there is a crisis.
Fire and EMS personnel risk their lives daily to make their community safer and continue to do so, even in these challenging times. Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 Pandemic will be remembered as one of the greatest challenges faced by first responders in our lifetime.
From the onset, fire departments and EMS agencies have been called to the front lines of the COVID-19 outbreak response. Generally, 70% of fire department calls are medical. Firefighters continue to respond to the highest priority medical calls, despite the increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 infection.
First responders continue to be among the most vulnerable to contract the virus because of their proximity to new and unconfirmed cases. Regrettably, the death toll now includes the names of 50 fire and EMS Members (29 fire service personnel and 21 EMS personnel); and this COVID-19 Pandemic is far from over.
Beyond the increased risk of exposure to the virus, first responders are also having to face many new challenges. Many first responders are having to sacrifice personal contact with their own families to protect their loved ones from unnecessary exposure. Fire and EMS departments have had to become strategic in overcoming shortages in personal protective equipment. Some departments have reported rationing disposable equipment and having to substitute HAZMAT suits when answering a call involving a COVID-19 case. Many firefighters and EMS personnel are also having to manage longer workdays due to shortages in staffing and a surge in call volume. First responders have had to continually adapt to changing guidelines as hospitals overcrowd with patients.
Amid the ongoing heroism shown by our first responders every day, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) continues to support the fire and EMS service and the families of our fallen firefighters across our great nation. The NFFF commits to standing with first responders on the front lines and to support the families of those who make the ultimate sacrifice.
The NFFF has not wavered in its ongoing support responding to the needs of the Fire Hero Families. The following programs have been launched to support the growing needs the COVID-19 crisis has created for first responders and Fire Hero Families:
- Delayed Line-of-Duty Death (LODD) Services – Program would provide funding to assist families and co-workers to attend LODD services held later.
- Informational Briefs – Often families of fallen firefighters have other family members in the fire service. Videos focusing on specific concerns of the pandemic and the heightened stress related to grief will be developed to assist families cope with the added anxieties.
- Virtual Camps, Conferences and Retreats – Contract with various Subject Matter Experts (SME) and counselors to keep these programs going through a variety of electronic/digital gatherings.
Expert Economic Guidance – Provide support/guidance concerning financial matters to include direction to help families apply for any personal or small business relief available, through state and federal COVID-19 financial aid programs.
- Individual and Group Virtual Emotional Support – The added stresses upon firefighters and their families has been well documented. Potential exposures to firefighters and the possibility of bringing the virus home to their families creates a great deal of family stress.
- Health and Wellness Initiative for First Responders
As we continue to move forward through this National Emergency, there is a lot of discussion about efforts to support the families and loved ones of those who have succumbed to this dreaded pandemic. Federal legislation is being considered, states are looking at their presumptive regulations and while we do not know the final outcome of any of these initiatives, what we do know is that as of this writing, 50 of our fire and EMS brothers and sisters are no longer with us.
Determinations as to LODD Benefits will be made at some point down the road, but for now, we must honor the fallen, support the families, co-workers, departments, and communities that suffered these losses. There will be plenty of time later to discuss line-of-duty death classifications. No matter what, the NFFF is out there engaged through our Local Assistance State Teams working to support each fallen member and their loved ones.