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Emergency Services Experience COVID-19 Related Staff Shortages

By Gabby Hajduk

Throughout the pandemic, emergency services like fire departments and police stations experienced staff shortages across the nation. During the height of the pandemic, most of the shortages were due to positive COVID-19 tests and close-contact situations.

The Champaign Fire Department suffered from the same issues over the course of the last two years. Battalion Chief Andy Quarnstrom has worked at the fire department for over 25 years, serving as a fireman, fire engineer, and lieutenant before assuming his current position.

Quarnstrom said during the pandemic's peak, about 10 to 15 percent of the department's employees were out at all times. According to the, the Champaign Fire Department has 108 employees in the operations division, meaning the department only had 90-97 employees in one of its most difficult times.

Firefighters live together at the station for 24 hours at a time. They sleep, eat, and work right beside each other during every shift creating constant close contact. Any firefighter who tested positive for COVID-19 was quarantined in a hotel for 14 days. This also meant they were not seeing their families that much and often had to pick up extra shifts for their missing coworkers.

Most fire departments around the country were dealing with the same issues. According to CNN, the Cincinnati mayor issued a state of emergency at the end of December due to staffing shortages in the fire department. The Cincinnati mayor said at the time 27 staff members had COVID-19 and another 20 were out sick.

The problem was even worse for the Los Angeles Fire Department, most recently on Jan. 6. An article by CBS Los Angeles reported that the department was missing 299 firefighters because of the virus.

While the pandemic has started to slow down, staff shortages have continued. Champaign Fire Department Lieutenant Mike King said the department is seeing increased injuries and sicknesses because of the extra hours the firefighters have worked over the last two years.

The virus also affected the recruitment process for fire departments. King said he has been seeing a decline in applicants for several years now; however, the virus has made recruiting new hires even more difficult. Departments were unable to host open houses or hiring events for a while during the pandemic. On top of that, it was difficult for anyone to start a new job during the pandemic.

Quarnstrom believes people's priorities have shifted because of the virus. He said firefighters are gone one-third of the time, often missing Christmas, Thanksgiving, and birthdays. The pandemic has caused people to value family and social life even more.

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