How a first responder’s job has changed due to COVID-19, and their advice

In addition to being the EMS coordinator and designated infection control officer, Lt. Chris Schmelzer also served as the union president for Chicago Ridge Local 3098 for over 20 years.

While many are staying at home trying to avoid the pandemic, first responders are on the frontlines helping those who were potentially exposed to COVID-19.  

Every day that my dad leaves the house for work, he knows chances are he will come in contact with someone that has COVID-19, but he takes every measure he can to not expose himself, his staff and his family. 

Chris Schmelzer is a Lt. paramedic, the EMS coordinator and designated infection control officer (DICO) for the Chicago Ridge Fire Department. 

If someone has a communicable disease, he must determine if there was an exposure to any staff member and notify those on the call so they’re informed. 

Although he notifies the staff when a patient comes back with a lab-confirmed positive test for COVID-19, he said there has not been a true exposure at his department because the crew has followed the procedures of when to wear personal protective equipment (PPE).

With almost 30 years of experience, Schmelzer shares how the job has changed due to COVID-19. From when he walks in the firehouse and gets his temperatures taken to when he leaves and takes his temperature again, it’s all different. 

How has the pandemic affected your day-to-day work?

Tremendously. Every aspect of the job has changed … We now assess from six feet away and determine whether or not we need to be in the full-blown personal protective equipment, including face shields and mask and gloves and gowns and booties and everything else to protect ourselves from that patient, or if it’s just someone who may have cut their finger with no potential COVID symptoms. 

It’s even dipping into basic fire alarms that aren’t even a medical call because anytime we come in contact with the public, we still have to wear our N-95 masks because you don’t know if that person who was smoking a cigarette in the hallway and set the fire alarm off may also have been exposed to this COVID-19. 

Have these protective measures impacted people’s ability to do the job?

Physically, I would say no, but I’m definitely starting to see the mental strain on a lot of the guys … You see the look on the people that are on the front line ambulances faces when the bell rings and it’s almost a look of dread, where it was never like that before. It was more of mild annoyance, where now you can see they’re actually concerned over what it is they’re going to have to come in contact with.

How are you doing on PPE?

We’re doing okay now. We received a shipment from EMA, the emergency management, and we also received a shipment from our resource hospital, but we were down to about 15 N-95 masks and three isolation gowns before we got that shipment. So, it was really touch-and-go for a while and we’re still having members reuse their N-95s if they haven’t been exposed, if they’re not dirty, just to preserve them so we don’t run out because we really have no idea how long this is going to last.

What would be your advice to people experiencing symptoms of COVID-19? When should they call 911?

You should call 911 if you’re having shortness of breath, chest pain, a cough that doesn’t allow you to catch your breath, and a high fever – and when I say a high fever, 104. If you’re mildly symptomatic – if you have a cough, if you have a temperature of 100-101 – stay home, get rest, drink fluids. That’s what the doctor’s going to tell you if you go to the emergency room. They’re not going to test you; tests are so limited, if you’re well enough to be sent home, you’re not going to get tested. They’re saving the tests for people that are admitted to the hospital. But by all means, if you can’t breathe, at that point nothing else matters, then call an ambulance or find somebody to get you to a hospital. 

Is there anything you would like to add to end this interview?

Always know that your public servants are going to be there as much as they can, and stay healthy.

Published by aschmelzer

I am a journalism student at Bradley University, and I work for the campus newspaper, The Scout. Traveling and writing are my two passions, so I hope to combine those loves into one job once I graduate.

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