COVID pandemic tested FDNY EMS first responders like never before


The FDNY EMS first responders who literally race to medical emergencies — sweeping in to triage patients as they rush them to advanced hospital care — were tested as never before when COVID-19 first ravaged New York City in March 2020.

In March and April last year, the FDNY’s EMS first responders rushed to help in the most medical emergencies on a daily basis in New York City history, according to recent statistics released by Commissioner Daniel Nigro.

Call volume increased by thousands, with the highest total ever coming on March 30 when there were 6,527 medical emergencies, he said.

“Worse than 9/11,” pandemic-weary paramedic and EMS instructor Chris Feliciano told the Daily News in early May. “9/11 was just one day. This was daily mayhem, chaos for so many days. People were working 80 hours a week. It was just non-stop, no down time.”

The number of FDNY EMS “incidents” broken down to reflect “fever/cough” — the classic COVID-19 symptoms — were truly staggering, the department’s data showed. And there were likely thousands more COVID-related calls that were classified in a different category.

According to the data, there was just one “fever/cough” call in December 2019 and 24 in January 2020 — and then an ominous 124 “fever/cough” calls in February 2020.

In March that year, that number ballooned to 5,696. The following month, those calls soared to 27,578 as the city officially entered its first wave of the deadly coronavirus pandemic.

The number has since not gone below the 2020 low in August of 4,933 “fever/cough” incidents.

Beginning this year, during a horrific post-holiday surge of the virus, FDNY EMS responded to 14,098 “fever/cough” calls. Last month the number dipped to 13,161.

Ironically, FDNY EMS responded to 1,412,690 total medical emergencies in 2020, down 8% from 2019 when the department responded to 1,531,870 medical emergencies — the most ever recorded in a single year.

FDNY EMS Local 2507 president Oren Barzilay, who joined EMS in July 1995, just months before the service was merged into the FDNY 25 years ago, laments service has always gotten short-shrift for the yeoman work it performs.

“I remember very clearly when our trucks were being called in to change the wording on the ambulance and they changed NYC EMS to FDNY. When we responded to calls, everyone was looking at us and the firefighters were not happy,” Barzilay said. “At the time they didn’t want anything to do with us identifying ourselves with FDNY. It was a big rivalry back in the day. Most thought that the EMS profession had nothing to do with being a firefighter.

“When they gave us FDNY uniforms, that just created even more tension,” he added. “The firefighters had to do extreme agility tests and we didn’t, and they felt that it wasn’t right to wear the same patch if we didn’t have to do the same sacrifices. But today we do the same sacrifices.”

The City Council has been sympathetic to the wage parity issue, last May passing a resolution calling for those first responders to be paid comparably to firefighters and police officers.

The salary of an FDNY EMT starts around $35,000 and rises to $50,000 over five years. By comparison, an entry-level firefighter starts at $45,000 and within five years will earn over $100,000 annually, not including overtime. But the bulk of the FDNY’s roughly 1.5 million 911 calls are answered by EMS, data show.