So here we are faced with a global health emergency. Knee-deep in this pandemic are the men and women who provide our emergency medical services. Firefighters, EMTs and paramedics are being summoned by 911 to help a neighbor or a perfect stranger. These are the men and women who represent the “first wave” in caring for people with this deadly disease.

When the call comes, they go. They willingly put themselves in harm’s way, and while they take every reasonable precaution available, they must have physical contact with the patient in order to render care. Emergency service personnel across the country are being exposed, with many already testing positive for the virus, and as of this writing over 5,000 fire and EMS personnel are being quarantined. Many are sick and hospitalized, hoping they will survive.

So far, I have not said anything that is not already known, if you have paid attention to the news coverage. However, what you are not hearing is how grossly understaffed our emergency services are.

In our community, under normal conditions both the City of Winchester and Frederick County operate well below necessary minimum staffing levels to sustain effective emergency services. Fire stations have to share career staff for multiple units and hope that volunteers can make up the difference. It’s not uncommon to see a fire response unit answering a call with only a driver on board. This is not only tactically ineffective, it’s dangerous for both the fire-rescue responder and the public. While both the city and county have some outstanding volunteers, many veteran volunteers are aging out of their operational role and their numbers continue to shrink. Given the nature of emergency we currently face, a volunteer must also reassess if their exposure to this disease is worth the risk to themselves and their family.

It is time for both the City Council and Board of Supervisors to take a serious look at the need to provide basic tactical staffing for every fire-rescue station. This means that each primary engine and ambulance are provided with dedicated staff, so personnel are not staffing one type of emergency service and sacrificing another. When you staff both the primary fire response and emergency medical response unit in each station around the clock, staffing works in concert with one another, not in competition. Minimum tactical unit staffing provides service that is more effective for our citizens and safer for our response personnel and still provides plenty of opportunities for volunteers to actively participate.

It’s budget season and now is the time. I would ask all of our elected officials to engage your fire chiefs in a serious conversation regarding how a plan for a phased transition to tactical unit staffing can be developed and managed in a fiscally responsible way.

Thomas Owens is a resident of Frederick County.

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