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Firefighters battle COVID-19 in the field and in station houses

Memphis Fire Department
Memphis Fire Department(WMC)
Updated: Dec. 16, 2020 at 10:59 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Tuesday night, we uncovered some medics have had to wait with their patients more than seven hours for a hospital bed this year.

But the coronavirus has also taken its own toll on those first responders.

As of December, 227 Memphis fire employees had tested positive for COVID-19 -- many of whom already place their lives on the line every day.

Memphis firefighters answer every call but COVID-19 has taken a toll on the MFD. Approximately 696 firefighters have had to either isolate or quarantine during seven months of the pandemic.

“So that’s a little over 39% of our workforce,” said Gina Sweat.

Memphis Fire Director Gina Sweat and her Shelby County counterpart, Alvin Benson, worry about keeping their teams healthy.

“So what’s kept me awake at night some nights: what if we had an outbreak at the dispatch office? The communications office? What would that look like?” said Benson.

They’ve put up barriers between dispatchers, improved air ventilation and filtration systems. But protecting firefighters from COVID-19 inside their firehouses, their home away from home, presents a more daunting challenge.

“So that’s where we’re really struggling in Memphis,” said Sweat. “A fire station is only a certain size, making sure they can maintain social distancing, try to stay masked up as much as possible inside the fire station.”

Firefighters and their families have access to free COVID-19 testing once a week but tests are not required. Like everyone, first responders have COVID-19 fatigue, the fire directors say, but show up every day and when you call, they come.

”We’re first responders,” said Benson. “We’re also potentially victims of the virus just like everybody else.”

“They’re out there saving lives. These are really tough conditions for them,” said Sweat.

”They step forward: heroes of the community,” added Benson.

The fire directors, like the rest of the Memphis-Shelby County Joint COVID-19 Task Force, are pleading with the community to mask up, keep social distance and wash their hands regularly to stay healthy and prevent transmission of the virus.

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