Paulo Gonzalez has seen many people’s worst days. At 25, he was three months into recruitment at the Fort Worth Fire Department when Sept. 11 happened. He and his colleagues stopped training to watch the towers burn — an image that would set the tone for his next decades of service. 

“The 343 firefighters that gave their lives, that really solidified the level of sacrifice that I might have to do one day,” he said. 

When the pandemic began, Gonzalez tried to approach his ever-increasing duties with the same mindset of the first-responders on that September day — “charging into a building” to help the people who needed it most. And he and his colleagues did so: Amassing more and more hours to respond to the crises of their time. 

In 2021, firefighter overtime pay more than doubled from the year before — from roughly $14 million to over $30 million. But the true cost has no dollar amount: Lagging slowly but surely behind the uptick in workloads is increased concern for firefighters’ wellbeing, and recognition for services and resources to help the people who help people. 

Firefighters encounter people on their worst days — but doing so can take a toll, said Brent Sanderson, the fire department’s chaplain. “That’s just who they are, and that’s what they do,” he said. “But I see it and I’ve seen in my own friends, I’ve seen it in the people I work with: It beats people up. At the end of their career, they’re not the same person that they were.”

‘More than anything, it was just very busy’

It isn’t unusual for the department’s more than 950 firefighters to work overtime. But the men and women of the Fort Worth Fire Department were nearly stretched to their limit when COVID-19 added a whole new array of tasks to their daily total. 

Overseeing the transition was Battalion Chief James McAmis, dubbed the ‘COVID point guy’ by his fellow firefighters. In 2020, McAmis worked to organize testing opportunities for residents.

“We worked 70 to 80 hours a week for quite a bit of time,” he said. 

The added work didn’t stop when the firefighters were alone. To keep the virus out of the fire stations, they implemented intensive sanitary precautions and daily testing, all of which meant more hours on the job.

Before the pandemic, Gonzalez served primarily as an EMT instructor for new recruits. In spring 2020, though, he rejoined his colleagues on the firetruck — both to provide personal protective equipment to crews responding to crisis and, sometimes, to take over when his colleagues fell ill. 

“More than anything, it was just very busy,” he said. “We didn’t really have time to process. This was what we had to do, and we just set about doing it.”

He remembers a day in April of that year when the pandemic, like the image of those burning towers, finally felt real. He and a colleague were providing support to a crew of firefighters on a Wednesday, and the stillness of lockdown felt eerie. 

“At 1 o’clock in the afternoon, the streets are just barren — like, there’s nobody,” he said. “The city of Fort Worth was a ghost town.”

Fort Worth firefighters stand and talk to each other at the scene of a crash. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

When the COVID-19 vaccines first became available to the public, the department worked to ensure community members could get their shots. A small group of firefighters still provided testing, McAmis said, but most of the manpower transitioned to the vaccination effort, which started in partnership with Tarrant County Public Health.

Gonzalez worked at both clinics that sprang up, coordinating personnel and giving shots. He credits Battalion Chief Sherri Hauch for making operations run smoothly. “From the very beginning, she really worked hard on those COVID-19 clinics, turning nothing into something.”

As first responders, all firefighters are taught how to give shots. But “a firefighter doesn’t give a shot everyday, thankfully,” so McAmis said it was a matter of refreshing staff to make sure they were up to speed on administering vaccinations.

“We’re very proud we could provide that service,” he said. 

Now, four months into 2022, the fire department no longer hosts mass vaccination events at the public safety complex. The ready availability of vaccines at pharmacies means firefighters can refocus their efforts toward their regular duties.

Some changes remain. Each day, firefighters still submit a COVID-19 test to ensure they’re not putting their fellow firefighters or the community at risk.

“That’s always something that’s not talked about a lot,” McAmis said. “But we are still very cognizant of it. And we are taking precautions to protect them.”

‘Now, more than ever, we have got to get ahead of things’

For years, Sanderson found meaning in the parking lot. A firefighter with the Fort Worth Fire Department since 2000, he relished the after-dinner conversations with his colleagues that happened on evenings when no calls came in. They’d set up chairs behind the station and chat.

“I felt like those conversations and having those relationships and being able to help somebody on a long-term basis — and build that relationship that led to something deeper and more eternal — was where I was headed,” he said. 

Brent Sanderson is a chaplain at the Fort Worth Fire Department. (Courtesy | Fort Worth Fire Department)

In 2018, after nearly two decades on the firetruck, Sanderson took over as the department’s single full-time chaplain. He partners with three other firefighters who serve in the same capacity part time, as well as a cadre of colleagues who’ve formed a peer support network. The team’s purpose, put simply, is to help firefighters be well. 

For Sanderson, the role changes daily. On the day he interviewed with the Fort Worth Report, he’d spent the morning calling firefighters to check in. In those conversations, he serves as counselor, chaplain and friend. Sometimes, he’s a liaison between the firefighters and the chief, advocating when one of them needs a change of pace. Other times, he’s a pastor: performing weddings and funerals and praying over colleagues in the hospital.

Regardless of role, he works to be as present for the firefighters as possible:

“It’s a big part of my job to still be out and be among the people that are doing the firefighting job and see where they are,” he said. “And try to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s going on out there.”

The pandemic complicated his ability to do so. Visitor restrictions at hospitals kept him out of patient rooms, and department lockdowns limited his trips to other stations. The department canceled gatherings like family night, a tradition where recruits invite their families to learn about their work. 

Still, despite the changes in his process, Sanderson didn’t see an uptick in mental health calls until the past six months, when the number started doubling. He attributes the lag, in part, to his colleagues’ ability to “adjust and overcome” in the face of crisis. 

“Even though this was something we’d never seen before, and … it changed everything in a lot of ways from day to day, I think most of our people are pretty resilient, and they just roll with it,” he said.

He also chalks the delay up to how trauma affects first responders. A crisis typically unfolds in three stages, he said: the event, the initial recovery and, later, the “mental health and wellness” phase. During the pandemic, the firefighters had a job to do and they did it, he said. Only now do some of them have the space to feel the effects.  

Paulo Gonzalez is a firefighter and instructor at the Fort Worth Fire Department. (Courtesy | Fort Worth Fire Department)

Delayed trauma responses can take on a variety of characteristics; chief among them are persistent fatigue and sleep disorders, nightmares, fear of recurrence, anxiety and depression, and avoidance of emotions or activities they associate with the trauma.

Sanderson hopes the department could hire a social worker who can spearhead wellness programs while he focuses on the one-on-one relationship-building that drew him to the chaplain role in the first place. 

The need has “been critical for a while,” he said, “but now, more than ever, we have got to get ahead of things.”

As for Gonzalez, the work has not stopped, but it’s become “normal” work, rather than pandemic work.

He and his family recently returned from a spring break trip to Disney World. And, they’re hoping to visit Japan this Christmas — his daughter is an avid anime fan. 

“I’m happy it’s over, you know. But it still doesn’t feel over,” he said. “I feel like we’re changed.”

How can someone deal with trauma?

  1. For firefighters specifically, Sanderson recommends they contact him or a member of the peer support team. Also, he suggests www.firestrong.org, a nationwide network of support for firefighters. 
  2. For everyone, Sanderson recommends a trauma-informed, licensed counselor. Ask if the counselor is trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, therapy. “It’s not the solution to every situation, but I want to make sure that EMDR is an option,” Sanderson said.

Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter

Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at emily.wolf@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter.

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Alexis AllisonHealth Reporter

Alexis Allison covers health for the Fort Worth Report. When she can, she'll slip in an illustration or two. Allison is a former high school English teacher and hopes her journalism is likewise educational....

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Emily WolfGovernment Accountability Reporter

Emily Wolf is a local government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Originally from Round Rock, Texas, she spent several years at the University of Missouri-Columbia majoring in investigative...

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