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September 2, 2020 23 min

The Queens Memory Project brings you the fifth episode of season two of the Queens Memory Podcast. This season we have collected the documented experiences of Queens residents during the COVID-19 Pandemic.


In this episode, we hear from first responders of color who have been on the front lines of the pandemic from the very beginning. 


Diana Wilson has been an EMT with the New York Fire Department for 17 years in Springfield Gardens. Rob Semple has been a firefighter with the FDNY in Corona for less than a year. Both Rob and Diana are first responders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rob, who is new to the force, remembers their 20-week training being cut short by two weeks in order to get more firefighters in the field as soon as possible to help with the pandemic. Indeed, medical 911 calls to the FDNY rose from 4,000 to 6,500 per day, including a notable spike in calls involving cardiac arrest, and a 400% increase in cardiac arrest home deaths. 

Diana notes a new rule for paramedics, implemented because of the pandemic: Limit your use of CPR. This rule was put in place by the Regional Emergency Medical Services Council of New York City, in an attempt to keep COVID-19 positive people from entering hospitals and infecting others. However, following widespread objections, the New York Health Department rescinded the order.

Previously, according to New York City EMS protocol, CPR should be initiated to all patients in a state of cardiac arrest, unless signs of obvious death are present or the patient has Do Not Resuscitate orders in place. 

Diana and Rob discuss the emotional toll they have felt during these trying times. Diana lost her husband to an illness in April 2019, and after COVID-19 took hold in New York City, she sent her children to live somewhere outside of the epicenter. She reports feeling isolated without her family around her, especially after two of her colleagues died by suicide in the midst of the pandemic. 

Similarly, Rob notes that many of their fellow firefighters find comfort in spouses and significant others, which Rob does not have. While the FDNY offers mental health support, neither Diana nor Rob have utilized it, though both encourage people to find support within their communities.

Rob also reflects on the unifying effect 9/11 had on the FDNY as a result of so much shared loss, and they lament that the pandemic hasn’t brought about the same response.

Fellow EMS worker Christell Cadet tested positive for COVID-19 in March and was told to come into work anyway. (In the early days of the pandemic this was not unheard of because hospitals were so overwhelmed.) Cadet has asthma, a respiratory condition which she is 20% more likely to have as a  Black American woman than a non-Hispanic white American woman. Eventually, Cadet went to the hospital, where her condition worsened and she was put in a medically induced coma and placed on a ventilator. (COVID-19 patients that require ventilators are always put into comas.) Cadet awoke from her coma a month later.

All medical personnel responding to the COVID-19 pandemic work long hours, are under immense stress, and literally put their lives at risk while working. It is an incredibly dangerous job, and workers like Cadet and 100,000 others have paid a high price. For this reason, there has been a widespread call for hazard pay to be distributed to essential workers, like medical staff, who put their lives on the line for us all.

Hazard Pay has been a point of contention between first responders and the government since the onset of the pandemic. “Hazard Pay” is additional pay for workers performing hazardous duties. Diana, as an EMS worker, has not received hazard pay for working on the front lines of the deadly pandemic. She reports hearing that doctors and nurses received hazard pay -- which could be because certain private hospitals and private companies have offered bonuses or increased pay for employees working in hazardous conditions. Yet no city or state funding for hazard pay has been passed in New York -- meaning no front line medical workers in city hospitals have seen any additional payment for battling COVID first-hand. 

Governor Cuomo has expressed support for hazard pay. Early on he called for 50% hazard pay to come from the federal government. He has supported the passage of the Heroes Act, which would allocate $200 billion for hazard pay. While the act was passed by the House of Representatives in May, it - or any other stimulus package - has yet to be passed by the Senate.

The pay gap between FDNY employees has long been a point of contention, even before COVID-19. As noted in the episode:

Starting pay for FDNY EMT is $35,000 and rises to $50,000 over five years. 

Starting pay for FDNY paramedics is $48,000 and rises to $65,000 over five years.  

Starting pay for FDNY firefighters is $45,000 and rises to $110,000 over five years.

Starting pay for NYPD officers is $42,000 and rises to $85,000, with an upwards estimate of $100,000 with overtime and other benefits.

As discussed in last week's episode of Queens Memory, the Black Lives Matter movement has swept the nation. Breonna Taylor was a 26-year-old black woman who worked as an EMT in Louisville, KY. On March 13, she was shot and killed by Louisville police while asleep in her bed. Diana discusses her fears about raising children in a time and place where they will be judged by the color of their skin. Rob shares their dismay that the pandemic hasn’t slowed the murder of black, brown, and trans people. Indeed, the number of police shootings in 2020 shows no significant change from the same timeframe in 2019 and 2018. Instead, murders of transgender people in 2020 has surpassed last year’s total.

Rob and Diana have noticed a lack of cultural and racial awareness among their colleagues. In Queens, where half the residents identify as POC or BIPOC, emergency response workers like EMS or firefighters must work quickly and comfortably in homes of families whose cultures may be unfamiliar to them. 

FDNY EMS workers are made up of 54% racial minorities, while firefighters are only 22% racial minorities.

Cultural Competency in Disaster Response is the awareness of culture, race, gender, class, age, and faith in an emergency and being able to work professionally while respecting the different factors that may play into the encounter. Training materials can be found online, but it is unclear if Cultural Competency training is provided to or required of FDNY workers.


This episode of Queens Memory was produced by Jordan Gass-Poore’ in conjunction with Sam Riddell, Anna Williams, Jo-Ann Wong, and Natalie Milbrodt. Editing by Anna Williams with mixing by Briana Stodden and music from Elias Ravin and the Blue Dot Sessions. 

Special thanks for funding support from the New York Community Trust. Queens Memory is an ongoing community archiving program by the Queens Public Library and Queens College, CUNY.

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Chat About The Borough We Became: Queens Residents On Life During COVID-19

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