PATERSON, NJ – New jobs are always tough.
Starting out at Paterson Fire Department, one of the busiest in the country, is an even greater challenge. With more than 148,000 residents to protect, firefighters handle an average of 40,000 fire and EMS calls annually.
“I don’t think we could’ve been thrown into a crazier situation to start,” said new firefighter Andrew Ocasio. “It’s been a hell of an experience, but it taught us a lot and now I think we’re ready for anything.”
The fire department’s newest crop of 33 probationary firefighters was just a few short weeks into the job when the outbreak flared up in northern New Jersey. “Almost instantly, we were dealing with the pandemic,” said firefighter Mohammed Abdelaziz. “We really don’t know what it’s like not dealing with it. Our normal is dealing with COVID.”
During the height of the pandemic in early April, the department saw about 180 confirmed cases daily. Within Paterson, more than 6,300 residents have contracted the virus and 366 have died over the past three months.
Despite excellent leadership and fellow firefighters on the job to help, Mishynn Squire recalls having “moments of helplessness” and second guessing whether she did the right thing.
One of the most difficult shifts, she said, was at the outbreak’s peak, when every call coming in was a DOA. “I couldn’t even count how many I heard on dispatch. At least 10 pronouncements,” she said.
Another tough call – the first time Squire administered CPR on the job was on a patient who was already dead. “It’s hard to tell if you’re doing a good job when people are dying every hour,” the 30-year-old former personal trainer said.
Abdelaziz said, “I’ve had patients flat out tell me they have COVID-19. That doesn’t change the fact that you have to render aid and put yourself at risk. Seeing people in need and not really being able to help as much as you want takes a toll. You want to be able to give everyone the best care you can.”
Besides the volume of cases, the fire department also had to contend with ever-changing guidelines and recommendations from the government, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other authorities regarding safety measures and the virus.
“As days and weeks went by, there was a lot of learning on the fly, but we all adapted and overcame,” 21-year-old Ocasio said, adding that he’s surrounded by “a lot of good people at the department. One of Ocasio’s new co-workers includes his father, Angel, a 16-year-veteran at the department and his inspiration to pursue a career as a firefighter.
Despite Paterson’s high coronavirus caseload, the fire department only saw 36 firefighters, less than 10 percent of its members, test positive for the virus.
Shortages of personal protective gear, lack of testing and COVID-19 exposure was a concern for healthcare workers and first responders in many parts of the country, but, thanks to careful planning, it was never an issue in Paterson.
Fire Chief Brian McDermott has attributed the “very, very low number” of COVID-19 positive firefighers to a more-than-adequate supply of personal protective equipment and supplies, as well as firefighters “being responsible” off-duty when it came to social distancing and safety measures.
While working, the department required temperature checks and increased decontamination procedures. Firefighters were also required to wear masks, as well as practice social distancing, within firehouses.
Being on the frontline made Abdelaziz feel “a little uneasy, at first.” But, he said, “From the chiefs, all the way down, we were automatically, from the start of the pandemic, prepared way beyond the CDC guidelines. From the standpoint of a first responder, it gives you a peace of mind.”
“COVID is such a fluid situation and our chief has prepared us for it. We, as firefighters and first responders, have a duty to help people and that’s something that’s gratifying for many of us. For me, I know I contributed to fighting COVID. Until it’s fully eradicated, I’ll be here, God willing, continuing the fight,” Abdelaziz said.
Nicknamed “the COVID kids” by fellow firefighters, the new class “had to step into an upside down world and face serious challenges right off,” said Paterson firefighter and FMBA Local 2 President Kyle Hughes. “They all performed and did what they were told to and seem to love it.”
Paterson Fire Chief Brian McDermott said he couldn’t be prouder of the probationary firefighters, calling them “impressive.”
“They are doing a great job,” he said.
Squire, whose desire to help others led her to firefighting, said, “I always have a list of mantras. For me, in this case, it’s ‘hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.’ As a first responder, we have to hope things work out, but do our job to minimize what may come.”
One of the biggest lessons she’s learned the past few months is the ability to “adapt and overcome.”
“If we can survive this, the regular nature of the job seems somewhat more manageable and now we can go back to adapting,” she said.
Ocasio believes people need to continue to be smart when it comes to resuming life, post-pandemic.
Though experts believe the outbreak could wane in the summer months, there are growing predictions of a COVID-19 resurgence this fall or winter.
“Keep precautions in place, keep gatherings limited and don’t change cleaning procedures until there’s a vaccine,” Ocasio said. “Just like how it snuck up on us, it could do the same thing again.”
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