By         Brooklyn Paper       Posted on April 9, 2020

The FDNY began a program to offer EMS workers free homes — but their choices are "less than savory."Courtesy of Anthony Almojera

The Fire Department is offering New York City's beleaguered Emergency Medical Service workers complimentary housing as they remain at the front lines of the COVID-19 outbreak. But, first responders say the units are less than desirable. "The lodging in Queens is in homeless shelter," said Anthony Almojera, the vice president of the FDNY EMS Officers Union local 3621 who works in Sunset Park. The alternative lodging initiative, which the FDNY kicked off earlier this month, allows the city's firefighters and EMS workers to sign up for free housing for the duration of the coronavirus outbreak — giving a safe home to many EMTs who had moved into their cars to prevent the virus' spread.

The department has secured 21 hotels, as well as some other living spaces, for the program, and has housed more than 130 members so far, an FDNY spokesman said. But many EMTs, though they laud the Fire Department's efforts to provide free lodging, say the units secured so far aren't particularly safe. "I'm hearing reports that the one in Brooklyn is less than savory," said Almojera. "[One is] a hotel that's known to have prostitutes frequent it. It's in a less than safe area." Another EMS worker based in East New York said he heard the lodgings in Brooklyn included homeless shelters. "I heard it was more of a shelter that they were using," said Terence Lau. "It's not really a comfortable place. . .but when you come to this point, there's not much you can really choose." State Senator Andrew Gounardes (D-Bay Ridge) is one of 31 legislators that had called on the Fire Department to offer workers free housing. He's since demanded that the department increase the standards of the free units to grant the overworked medics some relief.

"While having alternative lodging opportunities is vital, they must be of a standard that EMS workers are actually comfortable actually staying in," he said. "Our EMS workers are heroes on the front lines, responding to hundreds of life-saving calls each day. They should never be forced to choose between subpar accommodations, sleeping in their car and potentially exposing their families." An FDNY spokesman denied that the department was using shelters for housing, and said that the initiative only placed members in hotel rooms and furnished apartments. The EMT housing program comes as 911 calls inundate the EMS stations at record highs — surpassing, on some days, the number of calls on Sept. 11, 2001. Paramedics say that the overwhelming majority of calls have been for cardiac arrests, which they think result from coronavirus.

"During the day we had 12 cardiac arrests. That's unheard of. On a busy day, maybe one or two," said Almojera, adding that 10 of those 12 patients had suffered from coronavirus symptoms. Meanwhile, a shortage of personal protective equipment, such as N95 face masks, has increased first responders' vulnerability to the virus, first responders said. As of this week, approximately 700 EMS workers were out sick or in quarantine, Almojera said, forcing employees to work up to 16 hours a day, sometime for a couple days in a row. "You start to see double," he said.

The long work days and overwhelming deaths also take an emotional toll on EMTs, many of whom were drawn to the job because of their optimism and desire to help. "It does take a toll on me seeing that many cardiac arrests," said Local 3621 Captain Ranae Mascol, who is stationed in Bedford-Stuyvesant. "Because of social distancing, we can't comfort the family members. We can't be there to embrace them and say, 'I'm sorry for your loss.'"

Almojera said that, at the very least, the crisis highlights the importance of EMS workers, who receive less pay and fewer benefits than the police and firefighting counterparts. Firefighters make $35,000 more than EMS workers, Almojera said, and while firefighters and police officers get unlimited sick leave, EMTs get only 12 days. To make ends meet, many EMTs work multiple jobs.

"If you do this job, you're doing it because you love it," Almojera said.