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On the Front Lines of the Pandemic with My Nephew

12 Apr
Chris Miller_Blog Shot 2020

As of this writing, New Jersey has approximately 56,000 confirmed cases of Coronavirus and rising. It’s currently one of the nation’s biggest hot spots, second only to New York City and New York State. And on the front lines fighting this global pandemic is my favorite first responder – my nephew Chris.

Chris Image 1 Final

Chris as Captain, Age 22.                                               
Chris Portrait
Chris as Deputy Chief, Age 32.

Chris has been a rescue squad member in New Jersey for literally half his life. He joined when he was sixteen and has never looked back since. He is now Deputy Chief of his squad with two lieutenants and a captain who report to him. But what I find equally amazing to these achievements is the fact that Chris is a volunteer. He, along with his colleagues, risk their lives to save perfect strangers – for free.

Frank and Chris

Chief Frank and Deputy Chief Chris in happier times.

Awards Ceremony 2018

Chris and his fellow squad members recognized for actions in the line of duty, May 2018.

I sat down the other night and checked in with Chris, who was on duty and had just come back from a call. I asked him what it was like being on the front lines of the greatest health crisis most of us will likely ever see, and hopefully live through. I wanted to share what he had to say.

Chris Image 2 Final

How fast is the Coronavirus spreading in your neck of the woods?

Well, a week ago we had just one case of the virus in our little town of 3,400 people, and now we’re up to 10. In the county we’re in the hundreds. My squad covers approximately a 60-square mile area, and we currently have about 60 cases in that area.

Chris in Seed Bin

Chris during Technical Rescue Training – Summer 2019.

To your knowledge, have you ever been infected with the virus?

It was about three weeks ago tonight, I had to be quarantined because of a suspected exposure. They didn’t have tests available then, so about twelve of us including four state troopers and two paramedics, had to self-quarantine. This virus has such a high-incubation rate, about two weeks, that I wouldn’t have tested positive anyway. So, I sat on the sidelines until we got the all-clear. Now, if we’re exposed but asymptomatic, they’ll let us go back to medical work but we have to wear a mask the entire time. It’s because there just aren’t enough medical workers to go around. We were just informed that our third New Jersey EMT, a 24-year-old, died of Covid-19. Needless to say, we’re taking it very, very seriously.

Chris in Fire Rescue Gear

Chris (center) assisting on a car fire with fellow firefighters.

Can you tell me what your normal day is now with the outbreak?

It’s far from normal. For starters, what took us a half-hour a couple weeks ago, now takes us an hour and a half to do. It’s all the prep to stay safe going out on a Covid-19 call. The start of every shift, we clean and sanitize everything – the rig, our boots, and get the prep kits ready. Then we just wait for the calls to come in. We have to be in a surgical mask whenever we’re in the building, whenever we’re out in public – all the time essentially.

Chris behind Rig

Chris, decontaminating the ambulance.  

We’ve been hearing about shortages. Do you and your crew have enough PPEs?

We’re definitely in short supply of masks, so we have to reuse them like everyone else (with exclusions). I have an N95 mask, and if I wear another (surgical) mask over it – that mask will keep particles off the N95, which means we can get a couple uses of our N95s in the field before we dispose of them. I can’t speak to how well we’re stocked (on masks) right now because the call volume is ever-changing. For instance, today we’ve been on 7 Covid-19 calls alone, so you can imagine how much PPE we go through even for a two-person crew. I’ve bought some of my own supply on the open market, for a healthy mark-up.

Chris Beside Rig

Chris, donning his Personal Protection Equipment for a possible Covid-19 emergency.  

What is it like to respond to a suspected Covid-19 rescue squad call?

Right now, we’re starting to see a real up-tick in our call volume. What’s strange is how we have to handle more serious calls. Where we would normally have an additional ambulance crew, or some police, they may come but we’re keeping them out of the scene right now, telling them to stay in their vehicles until we can ascertain whether we are going to need their help. We just responded to a cardiac arrest call right before you called, and where there would normally be three or more of us, at least two EMTs and a first responder, now there’s just the one EMT and first responder in some cases. It’s what we’re having to do to try and minimize exposure. Nobody can afford for us to have to go back into quarantine again.

Ultraviolet Rig

An UltraViolet Lantern used to sterilize the ambulance.

You and your crew rescue people for free. Are there a lot of voluntary rescue squads across the nation?

There are more in areas that do not have larger towns, and as you hit the mid-west, but there’s also other states that are starting to regionalize their EMS systems. They may have one paid station, with other stations elsewhere. A lot of the mid-west and upper mid-west is where you’re seeing voluntary agencies in addition to the northeast. Other states like California are nearly 100 percent paid crews. The same is with New York City, which is covered by FDNY. But if you head Upstate New York, there are more volunteer squads.

Chris in Command

Chris, command at training drill, Winter 2017.  

Ice Rescue

Chris instructing his crew during an ice-rescue training exercise – January 2019.

Being on the front lines, I’m sure you’re keeping an eye on the Coronavirus surge models. What are they telling you?

Right now, approximately 50 percent of our calls are Covid-19 related. Obviously, we expect that percentage to keep going up. All those calls aren’t always Covid-19 positive, but Covid-19 suspicious. But we have to treat each call the same. We’re anticipating we’re going to see the number of cases peak in the state over the next week. Meanwhile, our county is anticipating peak in the next couple of weeks. So, we’re just starting to get into the heavy part of this now. As far as the state, we could see hotspots in places like Princeton, which is more densely populated. Jersey City and Hoboken are seeing a lot more cases now. And Bergen and Essex County that border Manhattan are also hotspots.

Chris Image 3 Final

Chris, during an after-action meeting, following a multi-agency incident.

To your knowledge, are people adhering to the Stay-at-Home order in your state?

With mixed results, really. There’s been a lot of chatter on the police channels we scan for our work. It’s mostly people congregating, people out playing sports, people out taking walks – people just trying to release stress and escape the cabin fever. They really don’t understand that it’s best for them, their friends and family to stay inside and social distance. The other numbers this will negatively affect are psychological, domestic violence, and suicide.

Chris Image 4 Final

Chris, age 21, and Frank, during a much-needed break from running squad calls.

I keep coming back to the fact you do this for free. How do you make rescue squad and having a day job work?

Well, I just got furloughed from my day job starting Monday. I didn’t expect it to happen this soon but it did and without warning. So, I’ll be applying for unemployment and hoping the stimulus package checks come soon. Otherwise, it could start to be a pretty sticky situation for me, financially. I guess the upside is that I can now go on more rescue squad calls.

Chris Image 5 Final

Chris with Doreen, his Mother, who is a former rescue squad member and past Chief.

I’m sure that doesn’t sound like an upside to your parents?

My Mom used to do rescue squad with me. It’s how I first got into it. She worries but she also knows she can’t tell me to quit. It’s in my blood. The passion to help people is why I do it. I think it would be different if I got paid. Ironically, I think I’d have burned out a long time ago if it was my job-job. It’s hard to explain to most people but I’m just thankful that I’m still healthy.

Chris having Fun

Chris making repairs in a heavy rescue vehicle.

I’m thankful you’re healthy too. Good luck and try to stay that way.

Sure thing, Uncle Jon. Thanks for checking in!

Chris Image 6 Final

Chris, working a parish festival in New Jersey in more normal times.