‘We are fatigued’ — Northern Virginia first responders say pandemic has taken a toll on mental health, morale

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NORTHERN VIRGINIA (WDVM) — First responders are trained to handle traumatic situations, but firefighters say COVID-19 has added yet another layer onto the difficulties of maintaining their mental health.

“I think society, in general, is fatigued with the pandemic and the certain protocols we are all having to follow based on the guidance we are given,” said Dan McCleese, Chief Safety Officer from PWC Dept. of Fire & Rescue. “The same is true for EMS. Increased levels of PPE, the frequency of the calls…it does impact the fatigue level of our providers.”

McCleese says the pandemic has caused staff to utilize mental health resources available to them at overwhelming rates.

“In Prince William County, we have a resiliency center where our first responders have an opportunity to speak with counselors…I know that they’re readily booked out, I think we have four personnel now that are available for our roughly 400 employees in fire and rescue,” said McCleese.

Over in Arlington, Battalion Chief Anne Marsh from the Arlington County Fire Department says mental health resources are plentiful.

“There’s a facility that firefighters use by the IAFF that’s an option is someone is really reached a point where they need more help than we are able to give,” said Marsh.

Mental health has not been the only struggle the department has had to face during the pandemic.

“When it sort of crashed over us, there was a problem, and you can still see it today, with morale,” said Marsh. “A fire station is a unique environment, where people work very very closely together…Having to stay six feet apart, wearing a mask in the station 24/7 unless you’re sleeping, that put a real dent in morale.”

Through it all, the first responders have depended on one another for emotional support.

“We are a family, and your family is who you turn to whether you need or you want to talk something out or cry,” said McCleese. “It’s helpful to have that support network. That’s why you see fire and rescue departments being so tight-knit.”

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