Local firefighters use skills in nationwide battle against COVID-19

Kera Wanielista, Skagit Valley Herald, Mount Vernon, Wash.
·3 min read

Feb. 27—In the midst of a global pandemic, two local firefighters have gone above and beyond to help not just their communities, but the country, work toward recovery.

"It's a chance to give back to someone that you don't know and that needs you the most," said Adam Wunsch, a firefighter and paramedic with the Burlington Fire Department. "To be able to offer your help in a time of need is what drives me."

In the past year, Wunsch and Anacortes firefighter Joel Pratt have had multiple deployments with teams in the federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) program. Such teams are made up of highly trained medical professionals who provide medical assistance nationwide, when it is needed most.

A division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the DMAT program is operated by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, said Public Affairs Officer Suzanne Sellman.

There are 50 DMAT teams throughout the country, Sellman said. There are also teams that specialize in mortuary services, victim identification and reunification and veterinary services, among other things, she said.

"Our mission is pretty vast, but state and local governments can request us as a resource to assist them in any need that they have," Wunsch said. "We get called up to help in whatever situation it may be."

During the past year, that has meant deployments at every stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, including an early one when teams deployed to bring home U.S. citizens stuck in Wuhan, China, or onboard cruise ships stuck at sea as borders closed in an effort to contain the virus.

"We've been deploying since that mission," Sellman said.

Late last year, a team of three regional firefighters, including Wunsch, Pratt and Jeff Brown, who works for a fire agency in Snohomish County, deployed to a hospital in Lynwood, California, which was struggling to handle an influx of COVID-19 patients.

They did anything — from cleaning rooms to caring for trauma patients — that the overburdened medical system needed, Wunsch said.

"They needed staff," Wunsch said. "They needed people that could provide that care and fill the holes in that staffing."

Since returning from that deployment in late December, Wunsch deployed again, this time to a mass vaccination site in Las Vegas, where his team vaccinated between 700 and 900 people a day, he said.

"There was a lot of excitement," he said of the atmosphere at the site. "A lot of thankfulness."

As far as Chief Rob Toth knows, Wunsch is the only Burlington firefighter to participate in the federal program.

"It's pretty cool to be able to have somebody who's interested in helping, not just on the local level," Toth said. "One day we might be in a similar situation and we're going to be getting teams in from other areas to help us."

Wunsch, who celebrated his one-year anniversary with the Burlington Fire Department on his first deployment, said he wanted to join the DMAT program in part because of the opportunity it gave him to travel, but also because of the opportunity it gives him to sharpen his medical skills.

"You get a new perspective on the medicine you're providing," he said. "It's cool to see how other people operate, and those are things I can take back to Burlington and provide to my patients and the citizens of Skagit County."

— Reporter Kera Wanielista: 360-416-2141, kwanielista@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kera_SVH, facebook.com/KeraReports