As The Swellesley Report first reported over the weekend, the Wellesley Fire Department has felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic first hand.
Wellesley Fire Chief Rick DeLorie has now issued a message to the town, as published here, and followed up with us by phone, as summarized beneath the statement:
I have been with the Wellesley Fire Department for 27 years and served as Chief for 11 years. I have never been more proud of our firefighters and the Town of Wellesley than I am today.
In the midst of this evolving and unprecedented threat to our collective health, I’m reaching out to let every resident to know that we are here for you. We knew we would be on the front lines in the fight with Coronavirus, and every day I see my firefighters facing these extraordinary circumstances with courage and bravery, always guided by their commitment to protect you.
In response to recent media inquiries, I am confirming today that one of our firefighters is currently hospitalized with COVID-19. My thoughts are with this individual and I am praying for a full recovery. The family also welcomes your prayers and asks that everyone please respect their privacy.
In recent weeks, we have had other firefighters become ill from COVID-19. We have also quarantined members of our department as a precaution; all but a few with mild symptoms have returned to work. I will not provide any more information to protect the privacy of our staff.
As a public safety leader in Town, I also want to share how impressed I am by the depth of service shown by so many in Wellesley as we all respond to this crisis. Our Health Department, firefighters, police officers, medics, dispatchers; our facilities staff; the employees of all departments, boards, and commissions; our elected and appointed leaders; and especially the citizens of our Town are doing an extraordinary job. I have witnessed remarkable stories of the unselfish ways in which people are reaching out to their neighbors in need. A moving example is the amazing amount of masks and other PPE which residents in Town have donated to our department, to be distributed to front line health care workers who desperately need them. Other citizens are delivering food, making masks, supporting our restaurants, and offering to help in any way possible.
We are all in this together.
Please know that we will watch over you. We have solid safety practices in the Fire Department to keep our firefighters and the community safe. We have strong mutual aid with neighboring fire departments and we adapt our practices as more information is learned. I want to tell you what I tell my firefighters: These are scary days and we will get through them.
When you feel anxious and stressed, please reach out to someone. We are all here to support each other – human contact, comfort and even a little humor can help. These next two weeks are critical to help stem this outbreak. We join the Governor, all Massachusetts officials and all Town officials in reminding everyone to please stay home, follow the restrictions in place, and work together so we can ensure Wellesley Will Be Well.
Chief Rick DeLorie
Wellesley Fire Department
Dozens of firefighters across the state have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and hundreds more are in quarantine due to possible exposure, according to the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts labor union, which has shared this chart displaying the seriousness of the situation. Andover and Methuen are among other communities whose fire departments have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
Following up with the chief
In a follow-up call with Chief DeLorie, during which I asked why firefighters have been so hard hit with the virus, he explained that up until a few weeks ago the fire department’s front doors were still open to visitors, those asking for directions and so forth (“If we sold pizza, we’d put Chuck E. Cheese out of business based on the number of people who come by…”). Add that on top of plenty of calls where firefighters interact with people, and you can see how an airborne virus can make its mark even with an operation that is used to taking cleanliness and safety protocols seriously.
Even though Wellesley’s Fire Department has had a number of its members contract COVID-19 or go into quarantine just in case, WFD has not been short staffed, DeLorie says. Attendance records have been strong and mutual aid via a network of 35 cities and towns is always a call away, he adds.
Whenever a firefighter gets symptoms the first thing the department does is have the person get tested. “My next step, and I don’t know if every fire chief does this, but it’s to pray that the firefighter will be strong and get through it.”
DeLorie shared an interesting bit of relevant history involving local fire departments. Assistant Chief Jeff Peterson had relayed that the entire Wellesley Fire Department went down sick during the 1918 flu pandemic, and Newton covered for it the entire time. If something that dramatic were to happen this year with COVID-19, DeLorie says Wellesley and other community fire departments would do something similar, as they did more recently in banding together during the Merrimack Valley gas explosions. “We have a lot of plans in place for contingencies, and hope we don’t need to execute them.”
The fire department has changed its practices when going on out calls, slowing things down and sending in fewer firefighters when possible. Such as when going to a nursing home to check on an alarm panel’s faulty detector. If a homeowner calls about smoke when cooking, the firefighters will stand 6-8 feet away from the homeowner, get the whole family in masks, and then take care of the problem. Calls for issues such as seniors falling or EMS calls for a variety of reasons are all treated as potential COVID-19 situations.
The firefighters have managed to keep their senses of humor despite the challenges, DeLorie says. “They all look like dentists with their masks,” he says. “I’m afraid they’re all going to want to get paid like them.” It’s been suggested DeLorie should have been wearing a mask for decades, sparing others from having to look at his mug every day at work.
DeLorie emphasized how thankful he is to the public for its donation of masks and other necessities to the point where the department has had gear to share with other town departments and others in need. He’s also felt supported by town officials and departments, including the Health Department and Facilities Management.
While so many people are now home in Wellesley, call volume has slowed in certain areas, such as for car accidents and incidents at businesses. But when the department needs to respond, DeLorie says “we’re on our best game.” Dispatchers have been trained to give accurate info to make calls as safe as possible.
“I can’t wait to get back to normal,” he says.