Volunteer firefighters, EMTs in College Park keep working amid COVID-19

The Branchville Volunteer Fire Company poses in front of its station. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, first responders continue to work, albeit with new challenges. (Photo courtesy of the Branchville Volunteer Fire Company)

As the novel coronavirus sweeps through Prince George’s County, volunteer firefighters and EMTs faced a choice: remain on the frontlines of the crisis or step back as the pandemic took its toll.

While volunteer stations in the county are struggling to keep enough firefighters on duty amid the pandemic, Branchville Volunteer Fire Company — a College Park department powered entirely by volunteers — is still fully staffed.  

“The hardships on their end is just keeping it going,” said county fire chief Tiffany Green. “So, companies that are able to keep their rosters full with volunteers that are engaged and willing to serve their community during our worst times is phenomenal.”

Although fire service has evolved from strictly voluntary to career-based in much of the country, Prince George’s County fire companies still rely heavily on volunteers, which makes operating during this time difficult, Green said.

In a typical shift, volunteers work 12 hours, with some working from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and others from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Though these hours haven’t changed, volunteers must now also undergo a county-mandated health and wellness check at the start of their shifts, said Jennifer Donelan, a Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department spokesperson. 

Volunteers must also adhere to additional county protocol that requires members wear surgical face masks and maintain at least six feet of distance from each other while inside the firehouse quarters. 

They also allot time for specific in-house duties such as disinfecting station apparatuses and completing household chores to further maintain the cleanliness of their firehouse. 

[Read more: Facing a shortage of PPE, local medical professionals stress as COVID-19 spreads]

And with the rise in more medically serious calls related to the ongoing pandemic, volunteers are now stepping in to fulfill new roles as patient advocates — comforting and informing them like counselors or even teachers. 

“We’re there to support them ,” said the station’s captain, John Manco. “We are always honest with our patients … we are the voice of reason as for doing what’s best for them.”

Sophia Liu, a University of Maryland student serving as a volunteer firefighter and EMT at Branchville, said many patients are now “wary” of being taken to the hospital due to concerns and uncertainties related to the virus. Patients are not eager to be transported and instead are more cautious and fearful, Liu said.  

“I feel like each call is now taking longer, because we usually spend extra time on scene to talk to our patients about what’s going on with COVID-19,” the junior cell biology and genetics major said.

Calls during the pandemic also look different, since volunteers must also wear more personal protective equipment — including face masks, gowns and goggles on scene — Liu said. The equipment can be intimidating for some patients, she added, which is why she finds it important to establish a sense of trust through clear patient-to-provider communication

And just like patient-to-provider communication, member-to-member communication within the firehouse has also increased.

[Read more: Meet Prince George’s County’s first ever female fire chief]

Crew members consistently discuss and determine efficient ways to run specific calls before each shift, said Liu. Members engage in constant discourse regarding shifts, calls and even staffing changes.

“It’s really important to know … your crew has your back,” Liu said. “You can focus on getting the job done because you know exactly what’s going through everyone else’s head.”

Branchville’s members attribute the trust and camaraderie family-feel to the team of volunteers.

“We’re all constantly training with one another and there’s this feeling in this community where you don’t want to let your brothers and sisters and your family at the firehouse down,” said Ryan Felix, a fire sergeant at Branchville. “You want to do the best that you can.”

This article has been updated.

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