PHOENIX, ARIZ.– – Firefighters across the country are preparing for their busiest season of the year – with the coronavirus pandemic making their jobs even tougher.
On Thanksgiving this year, the National Fire Protection Association said fire departments nationwide responded to 1,630 home cooking fires – about 3.5 times higher than an average day. With an increase in cooking and the possibility of fires from Christmas tree and lights, they are bracing for a busy end of the year.
On average, U.S. fire departments respond to 160 home fires sparked by Christmas trees each year, according to data from 2014-2018.
Gary Ludwig, fire chief of the Champaign Fire Department in Illinois and past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, told Fox News that earlier this year they saw a brief decrease in calls during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We saw in the early lockdowns in March that our calls decreased, not only fire wise, but also medical calls because people didn’t want to go to the hospital, but over time, what we’ve seen is a ramp up as people stay at home, as they do more cooking at home, and do other types of things at home, we’ve actually seen an increase in fires,” said Ludwig.
However, that small reprieve was short-lived and as the coronavirus infection rates increased, so did the fire emergency calls.
“This is a very challenging time, and a very significant time for us to protect our firefighters and EMS personnel,” Ludwig said. “The fire service is the largest provider of emergency medical services in the United States, we transport over 35 million patients to the hospital each year and every day in my community, I hear us being dispatched to calls where someone has COVID-like symptoms or is COVID positive, so it has been so important, is so imperative, and it has been a priority for us to protect our personnel.”
In Arizona, the Phoenix Fire Department has seen a similar pattern.
“We didn’t see too much of COVID at the spike in March, but come summertime, it was almost every other call especially for the medical calls we run on was a COVID-positive patient or a patient that was very likely COVID positive,” said Phoenix firefighter Joseph Buckley.
The department is focused on protecting the community and themselves against COVID-19 by taking strict measures like wearing masks at all times, socially distancing whenever possible, and utilizing a decontamination unit that sanitizes and sprays their trucks, ambulances and stations.
“This is just another layer of protection and safety that the Phoenix Fire Department is taking,” said Phoenix Fire Department Captain Todd Keller. “This caught everybody off by surprise. We are wearing masks in the grocery stores, we are making sure that we are setting the example for the public and anybody else that sees us out there”.
Keller said the city of Phoenix, the fire department and other community organizations have been working closely together throughout the entire pandemic to ensure everyone has enough personal protective equipment.
“This is something really serious and through our upper management and our leadership, this is something that they are asking us to do and we are doing it,” he said. “We do require firefighters to wear masks inside the stations, we do have our social distancing, sometimes when we’re eating lunch or dinner we will separate the tables to have 6 feet apart.”
However, no matter how many precautions they take, it’s extremely challenging for these first responders not to catch the virus.
“I tested positive for COVID in early October. I did everything that we’re trained to do … but sometimes it’s just unpreventable. We are on the front line and we’re at risk,” said Buckley.
Nationwide the number of firefighters testing positive for coronavirus is growing. The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation reports 114 firefighters and EMS personnel have died so far because of COVID-19.
“That’s a tragic number but those are firefighters and EMS personnel that went out with a sense of duty and a sense of purpose to do their jobs and unfortunately they became infected,” said Ludwig.
Fire chiefs say they’re also concerned about potential budget cuts and layoffs.
“We projected about 30,000 firefighters will be laid off nationwide over the next several years because of the economic impact of COVID,” Ludwig said. “There is no way that you can shut down economies and municipalities that rely on taxes for a variety of different types of taxes and property taxes and sales taxes. There’s no way that you can shut down the economy and not have an impact on municipal budgets.”
But like many first responders, they’re focused on their community ready to respond whatever comes their way.
“Same reason we all come on this job is just a greater urge to serve the public and you know to the best of our means help people out,” said Buckley.
Keller told Fox News that they’re eager to get the new vaccine, which is optional for Phoenix firefighters.
“Our executive vice president for our local 493, our union, will be one of the first firefighters to get the vaccine,” said Buckley.
In order to have a safe and non-eventful Christmas, fire chiefs nationwide are asking everyone to remain vigilant during the holidays. They’re asking the public to never leave cooking unattended, don’t overload electrical outlets, and make sure your Christmas tree is water daily and is away from heaters and candles.