Opinion: Insufficient Resources Force First Responders to Face a Grim Reality
“Firefighters are not given [COVID-19] tests. We know we have it, so the people who are out there, you have to stay home. The EMS systems, traditionally underfunded and understaffed cannot handle this,” Anthony Almojera, an EMS Lieutenant-paramedic for the FDNY, said during an interview with CNN. It was hard to watch a hero like Almojera get emotional talking about the toll that this pandemic is taking on first responders. But it’s no surprise. Firefighters & EMS personnel are still working day and night, responding to medical emergencies and putting their own health and safety on the line. Worse than just that, they’re also rapidly running out of safety equipment, including personal protective equipment (PPE). Not only is the lack of protective equipment putting them at risk, it is also increasing the chances that they are spreading it to the public and their families once exposed.
One thing is certain: The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated systemic issues that firefighters & EMS personnel have been facing for years. The lack of funding- including lifesaving supplies and resources- is not a new issue, but has become even more high-stakes during this unprecedented national emergency. Now our first responders are facing a grim reality head-on, so what are we going to do about it?
For firefighters and other first responders, that lack of funding and working equipment is nothing new. For years, funding for fire departments and local EMS providers has been drying up: city budgets slashed, millages & levies voted down, forcing first responders to make do with antiquated or broken down equipment and increased health and safety risks. The public still seems mostly unaware of the shortages firefighters across the country are facing- but if they paid attention they’d see the toll this is taking. From black mold in an old firehouse, outdated fire trucks causing safety concerns, and low pay forcing first responders out of their jobs, the headlines highlight just how bad it has gotten. As if first responders don’t have enough to deal with on the job.
This was a serious issue that needed to be addressed well before the pandemic. Now, reality is even more dire for firefighters and EMS technicians working on the front lines. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this issue- and the lack of funding and resources available to these first responders is criminal. We are continuing to blatantly put these heroes in harm’s way with every day that goes by and they don’t receive the PPE and other equipment they need to do their jobs safely. Recent data shows that COVID-19 is taking a heavy toll on firefighters all over the nation. IAFF has reported that more than 1,200 have tested positive for the virus; one firefighter in Chicago has died; 5,900 have been placed under quarantine and another 4,500 firefighters have been isolated. And I’m sure those numbers have gone up since this initial report. The lack of equipment and funding is increasing the dangers & health risks for firefighters and EMS personnel all over the country.
As a country, we should be ashamed. This is how we choose to treat the people that risk their lives to protect ours? These are our neighbors. They live in our communities. And yet the public has turned a blind eye. And it’s not like firefighters aren’t speaking up and asking for help. In the news, we are seeing almost daily headlines, and almost the same message over and over: “Massachusetts firefighters ask for help as coronavirus ‘spike’ looms”; “Coronavirus First Responders Desperately Need More Safety Equipment, 9/11 Firefighter Says”; “Firefighters struggle to find pandemic safety gear amid peak of brush fire season.” It’s right in front of us. So what are we going to do about it?
It’s not too late for citizens to step up and speak out in support of our firefighters & EMS providers. The sooner, the better, as the lack of funding and resources is going to have serious long term effects. If we choose not to take action, the Coronavirus pandemic will wreak havoc on our local departments and first responders now and well into the future. According to the PA Post, “Nearly a quarter of Pennsylvania’s EMS agencies shut down between 2012 and 2018 due to budget and staffing shortfalls. Now, the coronavirus represents the ultimate test of a fragile system.” This represents a microcosm of the whole nation: this pandemic can and will continue to exacerbate any given state’s already fragile emergency systems.
The fate of our local fire departments and emergency services hangs in the balance. As a citizen, there are a few ways for you to get involved and change our current trajectory. First, you can donate directly to your local department or association. Second, you can write your representatives and demand that your local, state, and federal government provide grants and better funding for first responders- especially in the midst of this pandemic. Finally, and we feel this is the most important for long-term change, is to vote “YES” in support of your local fire & EMS departments when you see a new millage, levy, or ballot measure come election time. Your vote matters, and we hope you will choose to use it to support and defend our first responder heroes.
It’s the public’s responsibility to educate themselves on the issues that fire departments are facing, what ballot measures are being voted on, and how we can better serve those who serve us day after day. Learn more about the extensive list of hurdles our heroes are facing, and what you can do right now to help. Read more here.