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Phoenix firefighters adapt, overcome during COVID-19 pandemic

(Facebook Photo/Phoenix Fire Department)

This story is part of KTAR News’ “Pandemic in Arizona: One Year In” special report on 92.3 FM, online and our app.

PHOENIX — Firefighters are frequently asked to adapt and overcome, and that’s exactly what the Phoenix Fire Department has done since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in Arizona.

To date, over 500 Phoenix firefighters have contracted COVID-19. That’s estimated to be about one third of the department’s operational workforce.

As the virus ran rampant throughout the community in 2020, it was clearly reflected in the fire department’s members as they continued to work on the front lines during the pandemic.

Not only were firefighters testing positive, but they were also routinely exposed to the virus on the job. Subsequently, the virus spread within fire stations.

As a result, the Phoenix Fire Department was tasked with staffing fire trucks in the midst of critical staffing shortages due to many members getting sick and others mandated to quarantine.

“We were doing stuff we had never done before, emergency staffing, phone calls telling people you have to come into work, we had people that were in very important staff positions that we had to put back on trucks,” Capt. Rob McDade told KTAR News 92.3 FM.

In July, Phoenix Fire dedicated a crew to keep fire trucks and ambulances decontaminated. The protocol included a special cleaning for their ambulances after transporting any patients who may have been positive for coronavirus.

The crew used electromagnetic cleaners that use a powder coating of aerosol hydrogen peroxide mixture to clean the equipment. The goal was to decontaminate completely after transporting a patient that was suspected to have COVID-19.

In the middle of working to keep their members safe from coronavirus, the department was also tasked with thinking about the future.

The city of Phoenix had to figure out how to hire and train the next generation of firefighters.

Before COVID-19, the Phoenix Fire Department typically had three to four 14-week fire academies every year. Due to challenges brought on by the pandemic, the department is now in the midst of holding its second academy right now.

“It’s not easy – we have to be extra diligent to make sure we’re wearing face masks when we can, we’re doing social distancing, we’re trying to avoid having the whole class at one point in time in a classroom,” McDade said.

Those same protocols are asked of Phoenix firefighters already on the streets as well.

But the beginning of the pandemic, that wasn’t easy for them. Massive shortages of personal protective equipment had firefighters reusing their masks on calls. Since the supply chain has improved, that’s not as big of a problem anymore.

Masks are still worn on all 911 calls whether COVID-19 is a contributing factor or not. And that continues to be a hurdle for firefighters.

“Our greatest strength is comfort, when we can get in there and people can see the look on our face – like, ‘you’re going to be okay’ or a smile from a firefighter saying ‘we’re going to help you, we’re going to take care of you,” McDade said. “We lost that and that was big for us to try and overcome.”

COVID-19 related calls have decreased for the department as well as the number of coronavirus cases among its members.

After an exhausting year, the profession looks forward to the future as there is a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine now available.

Capt. McDade shared an emotional recollection of what this past year has been like and what he hopes will no longer be a reality.

“We had somebody that was having a stroke and it was really hard for me to tell his wife, ‘You won’t be allowed in the hospital,’” McDade said. “I hope that that is something we are not still going through a year from now.”

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