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How Firefighters Are Coping with COVID-19

How Firefighters Are Coping with COVID-19

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By Captain Brad Bouchillon, Statesboro (GA) Fire Department

Several months ago, the world changed by the rapid spread of a virus. The novel coronavirus pandemic that spawned the COVID-19 respiratory disease has generated more questions than answers for medical professionals. As more information becomes available about the transmission and the illnesses caused by the virus, government leaders are scrambling to cultivate an action plan for the public.

[Podcast: Emergency Management Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic]

The unknowns associated with this virus and the resulting mandates to self-quarantine at home have caused some degree of angst: Toilet paper has become a precious commodity; small businesses are being forced to close; and hand sanitizer is a rare commodity. This began in March, the first month of the pandemic in the U.S.

Fortunately, Americans are resilient and we’ve adapted to this new lifestyle that has been forced on us. People started wearing masks, washing their hands often, and implemented social distancing measures.

Measures to Protect Firefighters and Staff

As a full-time firefighter, it has been an eye-opening experience for me to witness how the first responder community is reacting to and coping with the pandemic.

[Related: Leadership during COVID-19: Building an Incident Action Plan]

My department, as did many others, had to completely change our day-to-day operations as a direct result of the virus. Although my fire department does not respond to medical calls, we still implement many aggressive and proactive measures to prevent or limit the spread of COVID-19 including:

  • Checking firefighters’ temperatures before they clock in
  • Wearing N-95 masks to any non-emergency calls like smoke detector installations
  • Closing the station to anyone other than fire department personnel
  • Increasing our cleaning of the station and apparatuses. Firefighters perform the normal cleaning and maintenance, along with disinfecting all surfaces at the beginning of each shift.
  • Administrative staff switched to a staggered schedule so only half the staff was in the office at any given time.
  • Prohibiting firefighters from working part-time jobs if they were at another fire department, hospital, law enforcement, or other public safety agency in order to limit interaction with the public.
  • My department, along with others, enforced a minimum of two weeks in quarantine if any member was exposed or possibly exposed.

While these measures are critical to protect firefighters, the changes come at a price. It’s a struggle for me during this time with a toddler and an infant at home. My mind is constantly thinking whether or not I washed my hands long enough or enough times each day. I practically bathe in hand sanitizer and use Lysol as a cologne. It sounds a bit extreme but we do crazy things for our children. I truly struggle coping with the shortage of groceries and cleaning items because I pride myself on being able to provide for my family. If we need something — whether it‘s toilet paper or formula — and I cannot find it, that greatly stresses me and causes a great deal of anxiety.

While I cannot speak for all members of my department, I feel confident that I’m not alone; other emergency first responders are experiencing similar stressors.

[Related: Traumatic Stress from COVID-19 Raises Concerns for Front-Line Responders]

During this time when our routines are disrupted and stress levels are high, it’s natural to feel disgruntled. However, it is critical that we focus on coping mechanisms and silver linings: Being forced to stay home means we can spend more time with our family. For those who live alone, there is more time for self-care activities like taking up a new hobby, perfecting a home skill like baking, and just taking time to rest.

Trying to see the silver lining in this scenario is an important coping mechanism for me. I remind myself regularly that there are some things we simply cannot change, so why get stressed about it? Look for the positive in all circumstances and remember, this storm too shall pass.

coping with CoronavirusAbout the Author: Brad Bouchillon has been working for the City of Statesboro Fire Department for 11 years full-time and is currently a Captain. He has also worked as a lifeguard for Tybee Island Ocean Rescue and as a part-time EMT for Screven County EMS. Brad holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a specialization in crisis counseling.

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