UNION, NJ – The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone, of every age, and in every walk of life. And people have had to invent new ways of doing business and staying safe. That goes for frontline workers more than many. Union firefighters are among those who have adapted to these changes while keeping the community they serve safe.
Firefighters have adjusted quickly to changes and altered procedures – some short term and some perhaps indefinitely. By the end of March, the fire department stopped all non-essential and school details, inspections, and training. Union Fire Chief Mike Scanio said he moved a squad company, which usually works out of the headquarters building on Bond Drive, to Station II on Vauxhall Road in order to maintain fewer firefighters at each of Union’s three firehouses at one given time.
By late March, all public access to the fire houses ceased. All members of the Fire Department were required to have medical clearance before reporting for duty. Scanio said the department implemented a new policy where one firefighter makes entry to an incident to investigate, before committing others. He said personnel for any mutual aid (help from surrounding towns while Union firefighters were engaged in an incident) remain outside the buildings.
“Our firefighters responded extremely well to these changes,” Scanio said. “They understand these changes are made out of necessity to ensure we maintain our well-being and are able to respond to any calls of service.” However, Scanio said, he believes mental health is the number one issue facing Union’s firefighters and all first responders. “From day one, firefighters are taught to work together in teams, and now we need to learn to social distance and work alone to protect ourselves,” he said. Compounding that, Scanio said, is that in this short amount of time “the amount of death we have encountered is incomprehensible.” Scanio said firefighters have found it frustrating to be called to assist people in their time of need and, in some cases, are not able to respond as they were trained.
“We have responded to the changes, and we expect this to last for a while,” said New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association (NJ FMBA) President Edwin Donnelly. “This is our job. We adapt to situations. Our mission never changes -- keep the residents safe, while taking the necessary steps to keep our members safe.”
Donnelly says he sees the “crash after the storm” as a major mental health issue affecting firefighters at this time. “We have responded to more deaths and very sick people in two months than we have in entire careers. Couple that with the common fears of being infected and the fear of bringing home the virus to our loved ones and that will make for very challenging days mentally in the near future.”
Donnelly said the NJ FMBA has a robust and readily available mental health team, using email, social media, podcasts to reach members with scheduled virtual sessions with NJ FMBA doctors and team members who explain what to look for and “how we can be our brother’s keeper and look after each other.”
Scanio said they also have many resources available to help, including shared peer assistance podcasts, webcasts, and Zoom meetings. “I have also been speaking to our members through video conferencing, stressing with them to look out for each other and speak up if they need help coping with all that life is throwing at us.”
Five Union firefighters tested positive for the coronavirus, Scanio said. “Our members were supportive of each other. We tried our best to keep everyone informed as best we could.” He added that at any given time they had about ten members self-quarantined due to possible exposure. “From speaking with those members I can tell you it was difficult for them not be able to do anything for the 14 days.”
Scanio said the department follows CDC guidelines to ensure the department’s members, firefighters and their families remain as healthy and safe as possible. He said cleaning of all firehouses and apparatus take place multiple times per day. “I am happy to report that [as of May 19] my department is 100 percent back to work.”
“Union residents should be happy to know at no time was our ability to respond and protect ever in question,” Scanio said. He said the department will continue to take precautions in the near and extended future. “The Union Fire department will be ready to provide the service our residents expect and deserve.”