As a boy, Robert Weber chased the blazing lights and sirens of fire trucks through the streets of Brooklyn, New York.
He spent time in the Engine 247 fire station, ate Schinkenhelden with extra mayonnaise and “learned everything about how to be the best firefighter in the world,” said his wife Daniellle Weber, who grew up next door.
They married in their twenties and settled in Port Monmouth, New Jersey, where Weber was among the more than 1 million firefighters America calls when stovetops, factory floors and forest canopy go up in flames.
Weber was prepared for any emergency, said his wife. Then COVID-19 swept through.
Firefighters like Weber are often the first on site after an emergency call. Many are trained paramedics and paramedics who are responsible for stabilizing and transporting those in need to the hospital. But with the pandemic, even those who are not medically trained are suddenly at high risk of coronavirus infection.
Firefighters were not often counted among the health care workers who become infected in the workplace. KHN and The Guardian are investigating 1,500 such deaths in the pandemic, including nearly 100 firefighters.
According to Gary Ludwig, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, firefighters respond to 36 million medical calls a year nationally in normal times. This role only grew in 2020. “Nowadays we pump more oxygen than water,” said Ludwig.
In mid-March, Weber informed his wife that he had noticed a new pattern in the emergency calls: people with sky-high temperatures, burning lungs and burning leg pain.
Weber’s fever also became infected within a week.
“This job isn’t just meatball subs and soccer anymore”
Snohomish County, Washington – north of Seattle – reported the first confirmed US COVID case on January 20. Within a few days, the fire brigades in the region went “at full speed,” said Lt. Brian Wallace.
According to the paramedic in Seattle, his crew reacted to numerous COVID emergencies within a few weeks. In the months that followed, the crew set up the city’s proving grounds “from scratch,” Wallace said. Since June, fire teams have conducted over 125,000 tests, a critical service in a city where over 25,000 residents tested positive in late October.
Wallace calls his team “a public health workforce that is growing”.
Firemen elsewhere too. In Phoenix’s Maricopa County, which is still hitting new highs in COVID cases, firefighters receive dozens of 911 calls every shift for symptoms related to the virus. Firefighters have recorded over 3,000 known exposures since March – but “that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Phoenix Fire Department Information Officer Captain Scott Douglas, “this job is no longer just meatball subs and soccer.”
In Washington, DC – with more than 24,000 COVID cases since March – firefighters have been exposed in at least 3,000 incidents, said Dr. Robert Holman, medical director of the city’s fire department.
They have helped in other ways too: firefighters like Oluwafunmike Omasere, who serve in the city’s poverty-stricken Anacostia district, have “closed all other social gaps that kill people”. They fed people, distributed clothes and provided education about the virus.
“If it weren’t for us,” said Omasere, “I’m not sure who would be there for these communities.”
“We go in completely unarmed”
For the more than 200 million Americans who live in rural areas, a fire truck could cover miles and miles of land.
Case in point: the miles around Dakota City, Nebraska. This is a steak land that is home to one of the largest meat processors in the country owned by Tyson Foods. And Patrick Moore, the city’s first deputy fire chief, ensures that the plant’s 4,300 employees and their neighbors stay safe. The fire station has a proud history, including purchasing the city’s first car in 1929: a flame red Model A.
“We promised this community that we would take care of them,” said Moore. COVID-19 tested this promise. By the time 669 employees at Tyson’s facility tested positive on April 30, calls to the fire station had quadrupled and were coming from every corner of the 70 square mile jurisdiction. “It was all snowing, so bad, so fast,” said Moore.
Resources of all kinds – bedding, masks, disinfectants – have evaporated in Dakota City. “We were alone,” said Moore.
Ludwig of the IAFC said firefighters are low on the priority list for emergency equipment shipped from the Strategic National Stockpile. To replace “the real stuff”, fire stations have cobbled together ponchos, raincoats and headscarves. “But we all know these don’t do anything,” he said.
In May, Ludwig sent a letter to Congress asking for additional emergency funding, resources, and testing to aid fire department efforts. He has since lobbied in DC. Months later, the effort wasn’t much.
“We are at the tip of the spear, but we go in completely unarmed,” said Ludwig. It was “catastrophic”.
As of December 9, more than 29,000 of the 320,000 members of the International Association of Fire Fighters had been exposed to the COVID virus at work. Many couldn’t get tested, said Tim Burn, union spokesman. Of those who did this, 3,812 tested positive; 21 died.
Moore, Dakota City, got it from a man found unconscious in his bathtub. The patient’s son told the crew that he was “clean”. But three days later Moore received a call: The man had tested positive.
Within a few days, Moore’s energy level sank “somewhere between nothing and zero”. He was hospitalized in early June, recovered, and was on call again on Independence Day. He couldn’t stand for long and took over the role of driver. Moore said he was still not in full strength.
As the virus hit the Great Plains, calls to Moore’s department have increased nearly 70% since September. Only a handful of his boys are still in the ambulance and most of them got sick themselves. “We’re holding the fort down,” he said, “but it’s not easy.”
For the first time in my life, I questioned my choice of profession.
Chef Peter DiMaria
It’s the same story in fire stations across the country. In Idaho’s Sun Valley, Chief Taan Robrahn – and a fifth of his company – signed COVID after a ski convention. In New Orleans, Aaron Mischler, vice president of the city’s firefighters union, got it during Carnival – as did 10% of the armed forces. In Naples, Florida, nearly 25% of the members got it from Chief Peter DiMaria. In DC, Houston and Phoenix, a total of over 500 firefighters tested positive – another 3,500 were quarantined.
Quarantine can of course also endanger relatives: Robrahn’s wife and her three-year-old twins understood it. “Fortunately,” said Robrahn, the family recovered.
DiMaria, whose 18-year-old has a heart defect, has so far been spared. But after Big Tony, a close colleague under his command, died of COVID-19 – and after months of resuscitating people with heart attacks and shortness of breath from the virus – he remains concerned.
“For the first time in my life,” said DiMaria, “I questioned my career choice.”
“It weighs heavy”
The distress of these distress calls echoes in gasps, howls and tears.
Some departments – Houston and Dakota City including – have taken on a different burden: removing the bodies of those killed by the virus. “You can’t miss this stuff,” said Samuel Peña, head of the Houston division, “the emotional strain that weighs heavily on all of us.”
Firefighters experienced a second increase well into winter. “We are tired of the fight,” said Peña, “but there is no end in sight.”
Meanwhile, according to Mischler, tax revenues are falling, leading to budget cuts, layoffs and hiring freezes. “Right now we need reinforcements more than ever.” And in the volunteer departments, which make up 67% of the national firefighters, the recruitment pipelines are running dry.
So people like Robert Weber filled in the gaps at night and on weekends, which turned out to be disastrous for the New Jersey firefighter.
On March 26, one day after his fever increased, Weber was hospitalized. His course was up and down. On April 15, his wife received a call: Come on now, said the doctor.
Weber died before she drove into the hospital parking lot.
This story is part of Lost on the Frontline, an ongoing project by The Guardian and Kaiser Health News to document the lives of US health care workers dying from COVID-19 and investigate why so many victims are the disease. If you have a colleague or loved one that we should involve, please share their story with us.
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