Firefighters Self-Isolate To Keep Their Families Safe: ‘It’s Been Difficult Staying Away From Everyone’

The firefighters of Lower Manhattan’s Engine 4/Ladder 15 have been through some pretty tough times. The company lost about a dozen men during September 11, having been one of the first companies to respond. In 2012, the firehouse was seriously damaged in Superstorm Sandy after a six-foot wave of floodwater broke through the door. John Leary, a lieutenant in Ladder 15, is certain he and his fellow firefighters will get through the COVID-19 pandemic, too. “The FDNY has been through a lot throughout the years,” he told the Downtown Alliance. “This firehouse especially has been through it all. We’ve learned a way to tackle the next thing.”

The daily routine has changed a little at the firehouse. “It’s not what it used to be,” Leary said. Instead of putting firefighters on frequently-switching shifts, they keep the same groups together to minimize contact. In between shifts, everybody sanitizes. “We clean the firehouse like crazy,” Leary said, noting that the firehouse provided firefighters with sanitizing equipment. There are also fewer trips outside the firehouse, since the FDNY has cut back on building inspections and other routine tasks to keep firefighters safe. 

And when firefighters do go out on emergency calls, everyone wears masks. New Yorkers have been good about giving firefighters space and social-distancing, Leary said, but the anxiety still lingers. “It’s definitely a different feeling now,” Leary said. “It’s a different feeling to walk into somebody’s apartment and wonder, Could they be a person who has COVID?

One of the most difficult changes comes when firefighters leave the firehouse; at home, many try to isolate themselves from their loved ones in case they were exposed on the job. A few firefighters at the firehouse have tested positive for COVID-19, though so far everyone appears to have recovered. “I’m trying to stay away from my family,” firefighter Frank Rupp said. “I wait for them to finish eating and make food for myself. It’s been a little difficult staying away from everyone. I don’t talk to everyone as much as usual.”

Still, Leary has been heartened by the city’s response, particularly the respect paid to health-care workers on the front lines. “We are doing the ‘clap out’ for the nurses and the doctors,” he said. “I’m still part of the response, but it also feels good to be on the side of the people giving cheers. It’s like paying it forward.”