This Firefighter Worries He’s Going To Bring The Virus Back To His Family. That Won’t Stop Him From Doing His Duty.

Photo via Shutterstock

By Elle Meyers

April 15, 2020

First responders are on the front lines of fighting the effects of the coronavirus, expected to show up each day and care for patients in crisis, pandemic or not. 

Gene Thompson is one of those front line workers. He has been a firefighter for 23 years and is a member of the local rescue squad. He currently works as a firefighter in Harrisonburg, Virginia. 

We interviewed Thompson to learn more about what it’s like to be fighting a pandemic.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

Dogwood: Under normal circumstances what are some challenging aspects of your job as a first responder?

Gene Thompson: Normal challenges are running the EMS calls and of course running a lot of trauma calls like car wrecks, structure fires things like that. Usually the traumatic events are the ones that are most problematic.

Dogwood: So then, under these new circumstances what are the new challenging aspects of your job?

Gene Thompson: You know, the thing about being a firefighter is that you have to do your job whether there’s a pandemic or not. Your job is your job and you have to do it. We are taking extra precautions like wearing whole face masks, before we didn’t wear face masks on calls and we’re doing that now. But as far as how we interact with the public in our day to day operations those haven’t changed. 

I will say I think one thing that has changed in our lives is the family aspect. You know, thinking ‘Am I going to bring this virus back to my family? Should I take a shower after every single call that I run?’ Because I’m afraid now that I’ll bring it back to my wife or the rest of my family, that is the big difference now the psychological aspect of what the pandemic is doing. 

Dogwood: Are there any other extra precautions that your team is taking now?

Gene Thompson: Our chiefs have come up with guidelines on how we should proceed if we come in contact with somebody that has COVID-19 and we actually have set up a double wide trailer at our station as a quarantine area for first responders in our area. So if they choose,  EMS personnel, firefighters and dispatchers can choose to be quarantined in this trailer. 

Also we have a system in place where our volunteer rescue squad will go in to check people who call to report COVID-19 symptoms. They are now going to be the first for going in to check COVID patients instead of the firefighters going in to check the patient first. So we’re not taking firefighters and rescue squad personnel out of commission for 14 days to quarantine. 

We also have a policy that if you’re quarantined, you’ll be matched up with a peer support mentor, which is a person that’s been trained in mental health and who is also a first responder. They can answer any questions, be there for psychological support, be there for the family members outside of the quarantine if they need anything. They will also go out and get groceries for people and do anything that we can possibly do to try to ease that added stress. 

Dogwood: Hospitals and other medical facilities have had to deal with severe medical equipment shortages on things like gloves, masks and gowns has your team experienced that?

Gene Thompson: As far as our first responders, we’ve had the personal protective equipment that we need. Right now we’re at a sufficient level if this is prolonged that could change.

 Our local rescue squad had a shortage of base masks that we give the patients we’re treating, we give a surgical mask to patients just to try to keep those water droplets to a minimum but the squad was running low. So James Madison University, which shut down for the year, had a large supply of gloves and surgical masks and gowns and everything else that they had for teaching purposes and they actually donated their supply to two of our local hospitals and our local rescue squad.

Dogwood: Is there anything you want the public to know about the general response to this pandemic?

Gene Thompson: Honestly, I would stress that the public just stay home. If you don’t need to be out, don’t be out. The only way to contain this virus is to actually keep that social distance and stay away from each other. I know it’s hard because we are a social people but we can do this for a couple months and knock the whole coronavirus out. 

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