In the last 48 hours we have confirmed our first eight firefighters in the state that have contracted the COVID-19 virus while working.Firefighters place their lives and families at risk in order to provide emergency services to our neighbors and visitors. In Massachusetts, where this selflessness toward our friends and strangers alike is also a cherished family tradition, firefighters respond to motor vehicle wrecks, enter burning buildings, help the elderly in need, transport patients to medical facilities, and yes, even respond to the false alarm.
Firefighters place a premium on being adequately prepared, equipped and attired for every type of call we respond to. Each call may be our last, but our awareness of the nature of the call is critical to ensure that we, as well as those we assist, make it out alive. Thanks to advances in training and technology, as well as collective bargaining, Massachusetts fire departments are getting closer to having the tools and protections necessary to be successful for all types of calls.
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically threatened our ability to help the commonwealth at the time of its greatest need. The global health emergency has imperiled our ability to protect ourselves and you. The 12,000-plus first-responders represented by the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts (PFFM) accept risks of doing the job. Now, every single fire response carries the added risk of deadly virus transmission. We need to update the training, equipment, and accommodations necessary to protect ourselves as much as possible, so robust and healthy fire departments continue providing emergency services. If firefighters are exposed to COVID-19 without proper protection and treatment, we will hamper Massachusetts’ ability to respond to this pandemic.
That is why the PFFM is asking that the following practices be instituted immediately for all public safety employees in the state.
- Issue personal protective equipment (PPE) to public safety departments. Our job necessarily requires us to enter unknown buildings, residences, and business retail establishments, and come in direct physical contact with the public. We need PPE to protect ourselves, to protect the people we encounter, and to minimize the possibility of exposure or transmission.
- Provide priority testing for public safety personnel. In addition to other critical employees, police, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians should not be exposing co-workers or the public to COVID-19. We need to identify and isolate positive cases of first responders immediately.
- Provide contact information about positive COVID-19 cases, and residences under quarantine or isolation. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health recently directed local boards to notify their community’s primary public safety dispatch number with addresses of positive COVID-19 cases. That is an excellent first step. And dispatchers are being trained to ascertain if individuals in need have symptoms. But until we are provided sufficient PPE that allows us to presume every individual we encounter is positive, this order does not go far enough. We need a single database accessible to all Massachusetts public safety dispatchers that includes information from all boards of health and medical providers about individuals with symptoms, are quarantined, are awaiting test results and/or have tested positive.
- Updating Injured on Duty law to address COVID-19. Public safety employees who test positive, or otherwise subject to orders to quarantine or isolate should continue to receive compensation and benefits while they are unable to work. The current law, G.L. c.41, Section 100 & 111F, forces employees to prove that a disabling medical condition was caused by work. That standard creates an unnecessary risk and anxiety. We do not want first responders to keep working for fear of losing income and health care. We do not want first responders being denied pay and care while they perform a social service of self-quarantine. We should update the law to treat the virus and precautionary measures such as quarantine or isolation as work related.
- Providing benefits to public safety employees with pre-existing conditions. Many firefighters work until the mandatory retirement age of 65 or keep working with conditions — firefighters experience higher rates of cancer — that put them at high risk, especially now. This surprise pandemic has rendered many individuals unable to work.
Massachusetts generally has a record of doing what is right by public safety. We hope it will continue to do so by adopting these simple reforms to protect those that protect and serve the public.
Rich MacKinnon, Jr. is the President of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts and a full-time firefighter for the town of Whitman.
”There is no economic recovery without public health,” says Walsh
Get Boston.com’s e-mail alerts:
Sign up and receive coronavirus news and breaking updates, from our newsroom to your inbox.