The coronavirus pandemic tested FDNY emergency medical technicians and paramedics like never before — and they’re still dealing with the horrors that have been playing out before their eyes over the past year.
With the 25th anniversary of the merger of the fire department with NYC EMS on Wednesday, the men and women of EMS are more visible than ever and the job they quietly do has thrust them into a national spotlight. With a possible end to the pandemic in sight and vaccinations being distributed across the city, the number of emergency calls have dropped, but EMS members are still rattled by the trauma.
“It was more death than we’ve seen in our entire careers with the fire department,” one paramedic, who wished not to be named, told the Daily News. “We were going to cardiac arrest after cardiac arrest after cardiac arrest and we had to just keep going.
“Usually a medical call lasts about an hour, but COVID was one big job that went on for weeks. It was the same thing over and over and over with no breaks,” he said.
The experience took a psychological toll on everyone involved. At least three EMS members died by suicide during the pandemic, union officials said. It was not clear if their suicides were linked to their work. An increase of post traumatic stress disorder cases are also expected, union members said.
Realizing what its members were facing, the department expanded availability of itsCounseling Services Unit, so a counselor could be contacted at any time, FDNY Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.
“So many times they would get to a home and instead of finding a patient in need of help, they found a family in tears and someone already deceased,” Nigro said. “The job became comforting a family at the scene of a family death. This would happen over and over where they were in a situation where they couldn’t help.”
At the height of the pandemic between March 19 and May 29, FDNY members took part in 3,077 counseling sessions with a licensed therapist, about a 25% jump from the same time the year before, officials said.
The FDNY also activated their peer counselors: EMTs and paramedics who went from station to station to lend a friendly ear and provide services for those who needed additional help. Nigro said the FDNY has been using peer counselors since the Happy Land arson in 1990, when first responders had the grim task of recovering 87 bodies from the burned Bronx social club.
“We knew years ago that our firefighters were reluctant to seek help, but they were willing to sit around the table and talk through a difficult situation,” Nigro explained.
FDNY EMT Diana Wilson was one of the many peer counselors who were sent out during the pandemic in pairs. Everyone was facing the same challenges, so talking about it helped, she remembered.
“Going to the different stations, everyone was burnt out and everyone had the same stories,” Wilson said. “Just letting a person talk about their experiences goes a long way in letting the pressure go. They couldn’t go home and talk about their day with their families, so talking to their peers who respect each other really helped.
“They felt more comfortable talking to us. They related to us better than having to call someone else for help. We would be a shoulder to cry on and listen and if we started noticing something out of our realm, we would refer them to CSU,” said Wilson, who was still struggling with the 2019 death of her husband when the pandemic hit.
“I was taking this on while dealing with my own grieving process,” she said. “It was the best decision I made.”
Even though the FDNY EMS union got a grant to set up a peer counseling program, the PTSD is worsening and President Oren Barzilay said his members are going to need more help, including on-call clinical psychologists.
“We do 5,000 medical calls a day,” he said. “One of them has to be a traumatic event.”