In March of 2020, as an epidemic swept through the United States, families were forced indoors, businesses shut down, and life in our country to come to a screeching halt. As we closed our doors to friends, family, and society as we knew it, one group of exceptional individuals worked the frontlines of this deadly illness; first responders. While people everywhere hunkered down at home, firefighters, EMS workers, police officers, doctors, and nurses worked more days and longer hours than they already had been to serve those in need. From ill individuals to those impacted by scarcity of resources, COVID-19 patients relied on these selfless individuals to protect their lives. Signs of hope began to appear in front yards and in shop windows: “Thank you to those on the frontlines.” Murals were painted on walls across the country. Every evening, residents of New York City, once the epicenter of the disease, hung out of their windows to applaud healthcare workers, first responders, and other essential workers. The entire country acknowledged the important work of these individuals, and sung their praises for keeping us safe. Now, 6 months into the pandemic, first responders are still fighting COVID-19. But the applause has stopped. And layoffs, budget cuts, and station closures have begun.
According to a survey conducted by International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), almost 1,000 layoffs and furloughs of fire department employees, including front-line firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics have already taken place. As COVID-19 continues to keep many businesses closed and wreak havoc on our economy, stations have been forced to make budget cuts. Departments rely on sales tax as an income stream, and with unemployment rates skyrocketing and less people shopping, less money is coming in. “The same firefighters the country considered essential in battling COVID-19 are suddenly told they’re no longer needed,” says International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) President Gary Ludwig. “With almost 1,000 firefighters and support personnel missing from the front lines at this early stage, it’s clear these cuts will be deep and long-standing.”
While state-run departments are facing budget cuts, the IAFC is predicting some volunteer departments will face all-together closures. Relying heavily on donations from the public to operate, volunteer departments are seeing little income due to high unemployment. Major fundraising events, a popular way to raise money in the summer months, have been cancelled due to stay-at-home orders. Local ballot measures, another means of securing funding, have been delayed if not fully cancelled. It’s expected that many volunteer departments will be forced to close, leaving many communities without fire and emergency medical services.
And as the battle against COVID-19 rages on, no relief for fire stations is in sight. According to the same survey, based on the economic devastation caused by the pandemic, the (IAFC) has projected as many as 30,000 fire department jobs will be lost in the coming months, and into next year. According to Chief Ludwig, losing a frontline worker is more than another job loss. “These losses mean our fire departments are less prepared to deal with COVID-19 and every other emergency. Fire and EMS stations will close. Our citizens will wait longer for help when they call 911.”
For many cities, delays in emergency services are already happening. In Houston, Texas, paramedics are running into often hour-long wait times when transferring patients from an ambulance to a hospital. Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña reported a 20% increase in 911 calls due to the pandemic, and double or even triple the amount of time it takes to get a patient into the hospital after arriving. “The longer it takes us to service those critical calls, it is going to cost us in lives,” Peña said. “Our system is getting strained.”
To help address the financial losses public safety is experiencing around the country, the IAFC is asking Congress and The White House for $10 billion that will go directly to local fire departments. The organization is hoping to utilize the Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response Grant (SAFER) and Assistance for Firefighters Grant (AFG) programs to provide fire departments with critical funds that will go towards staffing, equipment, and training. Without intervention by the federal government, our country is facing a grim future. “As we continue to mourn the loss of our fallen brothers and sisters and worry about other firefighters who’ve lost their jobs, our focus—as always—is on the people we serve,” Chief Ludwig said. “Without federal help, our fellow citizens will suffer as they wait longer for fire and EMS to arrive. Congress and The White House are the only ones who can prevent this from happening. Firefighters need heroes too. We need Congress and The White House to act now.”
It is our turn to serve by protecting public safety with our votes. Call your local and state representatives, and encourage them to back the IAFC’s plea for funding. Vote in local elections, and stay informed on issues affecting first responders. But most importantly, we must not lose the spirit of gratitude we felt at the beginning of the pandemic. This isn’t the first, and surely won’t be the last.
Across our country Fire Departments face a funding squeeze which has left virtually every aspect of their operations underfunded. This includes everything from recruiting and hiring, to equipment, to the very buildings that our Firefighters are housed in. Read more here.