Firefighters, Do Not Fall Victim to COVID-19 Complacency


Fire Chief Gary Ludwig

The federal government started tracking firefighter deaths in 1977. That year, there were 152 deaths, and in 1978, there were 173 firefighter deaths. This made it the second most dangerous occupation in America.

Something had to be done.

In studying firefighter deaths, one of the root causes of LODDs that emerged was complacency. Complacency is just another fancy word for laziness – and laziness can kill us.

Responding to a fire alarm sounding in the same building for the fourth time today will make some firefighters lazy, causing them to adjust their behaviors. Maybe they don’t don all their structural gear correctly. Maybe they don’t put their seatbelts on. Maybe they take the elevator to the alarm floor. All these actions constitute laziness or complacency, which can result in our injury or death.

The same is true of COVID-19 complacency.

Now is not the time to become complacent. I get weekly updates from the National Fallen Firefighter’s Foundation (NFFF) on firefighter and EMS deaths related to COVID-19, and as of mid-November, 96 firefighters and EMS personnel have died from contracting COVID-19 on the job. I am sure that number will go up, as I was recently notified of the death of a lieutenant in Ohio, as well as a captain and a paramedic/communication specialist from the Kansas City (Missouri) Fire Department. Unfortunately, it looks like we will easily top 100 firefighter and EMS deaths from the coronavirus this year.

We are facing considerable challenges. Infection numbers are spiking all over the country. On a single day in early November, 143 firefighters in Illinois tested positive for the virus. This corresponds with the general population for which we have seen infection records broken every day. Hospitals are beginning to fill to record capacity again, and many do not have enough personnel to handle the surging number of cases. Some governors have considered using their national guard to help hospitals deals with the surge.

It seems a significant cause of infection for fire and EMS personnel is when we get together off the job. Early in November, 73 Springfield, Illinois, firefighters, including the fire chief, had to be quarantined or became infected after several firefighters came into contact with an asymptomatic individual at an outside gathering, not a work event. The individual was not a Springfield firefighter. It’s essential, as part of your diligence, to avoid large gatherings like this.

We must hang on, keep pushing forward, as a vaccine will soon be available. Two companies have already submitted vaccines for approval from the FDA, and it is believed that the vaccines will be available within days of their approval, as companies have been manufacturing the vaccine well ahead of approval under the federal government’s Warp Speed program.

The CDC has recommended to the states, which will be distributing the vaccine, that firefighters, EMS personnel and healthcare works be the highest priority to receive the vaccine.

For now, it’s essential that we, as firefighters and paramedics, not let our guard down. Do not become complacent. Do not think it can happen to someone else, but not you. I have known firefighters who have died from COVID-19. I have friends from other fire departments who have become extremely ill from contracting COVID. They describe it has the most extreme fatigue they have ever experienced, feeling like a ton of bricks sitting on their chest. Others report mild or no symptoms at all. You do not know how you will react to becoming infected. So why risk it?

Stay vigilant! Simple things will keep you healthy until a vaccine becomes available. Practice social distancing, use proper PPE on all calls (not just not medical calls), wash your hands often, disinfect and clean your stations, and continue to follow CDC guidance.

We are close to getting through this. As I have said repeatedly, there is always a green light after the red light. The red light has been on for quite a while now, and we will soon get the green light. Just hang on and do not become complacent (lazy). Your life may depend upon it.

This article was originally published in

About Fire Chief Cary Ludwig

Gary Ludwig is the fire chief of the ISO Class 1 Champaign (Illinois) Fire Department. He is the most recent past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, having concluded his term in August 2020. He has 41 years of fire, rescue and EMS experience. Ludwig started his career with the City of St. Louis at age 18, rising through the ranks and retiring as the chief paramedic of the St. Louis Fire Department after 25 years of service. He has also served 10 years as a deputy fire chief for the Memphis Fire Department. Ludwig previously served on the EMS Executive Board for the IAFC for 22 years, with six years as chair. He has a master’s degree in business and management, and has been a licensed paramedic for over 39 years. Ludwig has written over 500 articles for almost every professional publication in the fire and EMS profession. He has also been invited to speak at over 250 professional EMS and fire conferences or seminars. His latest book is titled “Fully Involved Leadership.” Ludwig has won numerous awards, including those for heroism, the James O. Page EMS Leadership Award (2014) and the IAFC EMS Section’s James O. Page Achievement Award (2018). He is a member of the FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with Ludwig on LinkedInFacebook and Twitter.