Donna Kallner, a first responder in rural Wisconsin, receives round one of a Covid-19 vaccine. (Photo by Bill Kallner)

In tight-knit rural communities, out-of-area weddings and funerals pose a challenge for first responders: If everyone on a department wants to go, who will respond to emergencies at home? The same is true for family reunions and fishing trips when many members are related. And it’s a constant frustration that many training events pull responders outside their own service areas. Neighboring departments try to coordinate so mutual aid partners aren’t all out of town when stuff happens – like the roof collapse at a Wisconsin department’s station when all of their officers were across the state for a fire conference.

But when large geographic areas are served by a relatively small number of volunteers, it’s a sad necessity that often someone stays back.

For many first responders, getting a Covid-19 vaccine will mean taking off work for an out-of-town appointment. Where we live, there isn’t a Walgreens or CVS on every corner. Rural public health departments have spent the past year with a pandemic added to all the other needs they must meet. They’ve had to learn to be contract tracers and social media influencers. And they’re just as likely as everyone else to not know from day to day if their kids are going to school in person or virtually tomorrow. You can’t blame people running on fumes if they can’t go to every volunteer fire department to administer vaccines.

So with the resources currently available in many areas, the most realistic plan for getting needles in the arms of first responders is for first responders to go where we’re told.

My husband and I were lucky. Being self-employed makes our daytime schedules more flexible than would be true for many volunteer firefighters. And it was only a 52-mile round trip for us to get our shots. Other options we found for first responders would have required a round trip of at least 120 miles.

Here’s how it happened for us. On January 14, our county public health nurse emailed the county fire chiefs association that Wisconsin law enforcement and fire department personnel would be eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine starting January 18. Our department then emailed information to individual members. Those interested in receiving the vaccine were instructed to respond to an online survey. 

The survey was prefaced with this statement: 

 As the demand continues to exceed the amount of vaccine distributed each week, we cannot guarantee that we will be allocated the amount of vaccine we request for the clinics we plan. It is anticipated that more vaccine will continue to become available in the coming weeks.

Initially, survey respondents could note their availability for time slots on just two days. Two more dates were added later. Available time slots have, so far, been between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays. My husband and I, both first responders, appreciated that they scheduled us for the same time slot so we could ride together.

The survey also included a check box to acknowledge this: 

I understand that I will have to return in 21 or 28 days because the vaccine is a two-dose series that must be spaced according to the manufacturers’ requirements. I understand that I will have to return during the same time slot given to me when I received the vaccine. *

On January 19 we received emails with information on when and where to report for the first shot, what to bring, and what to expect. It included confirmation of the date and time for the second shot.

The federal government allocates the amount of vaccine states receive by population size. The Wisconsin plan for allocating doses received puts fire department personnel in the 1b category – after front-line health care workers and residents in skilled nursing and long-term care facilities. On January 20 the Wisconsin Department of Health Services vaccine committee voted to expand Phase 1b to include teachers, food chain workers, prisoners, and corrections staff, public transit workers, child welfare and social workers, 911 dispatchers, frail elders, and people with disabilities, and mink farmers. If we were not covered by an essential category, my husband should qualify in the next group because of his age. I’m younger, though, so probably would not. 

Bill and I did discuss whether us getting the vaccine as first responders was unfairly jumping the line ahead of others desperate to hug their elderly parents or their grandchildren. Due to our ages and health concerns, Bill and I have not been responding to calls that might require close contact in a vehicle or in a structure (such as carbon monoxide alarm calls). Younger members have picked up the slack for us, as we trusted they would. We still respond to calls where we can expect to be outdoors. Also, we have not been attending meetings or trainings held indoors. Some volunteers on our department, as a matter of principle, do not wear masks. They have their reasons. But until the virus is under control, we only attend training that can be held outdoors. 

Even so, we decided to apply for the vaccine as first responders. To date, there have been two known cases of Covid in members of our fire department, plus two in a neighboring department, and the wife of a firefighter in another neighboring department died after getting the virus. On any weekday, it’s already hard enough to muster enough people for some calls. A widespread outbreak of Covid in any of our departments could leave our communities with severely limited personnel able to respond to structure fires, motor vehicle accidents, wildland fires, search and rescue calls, and to assist emergency medical services. 

Holding some resources in reserve is a hard thing to do when you have so few resources to begin with. But rural departments do it when it comes to out-of-area trainings and wedding venues. We did it when a derecho hit our area in 2019: Older members including Bill and I stayed on less physically demanding highway traffic control assignments while younger, stronger, more skilled volunteers chain-sawed their way through a tangle of trees and power lines in the dark to open a blocked road to emergency vehicles. If those guys choose to not wear masks or get the vaccine, it’s not because they don’t care or are unwilling to risk much in service to the community.

Yet if other members are ill or quarantined or serving as pallbearers or simply way out on the ice fishing, it may come down to us wheezers and geezers to respond. And we will. That’s why we’re getting the vaccine.

Donna Kallner is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department in rural northern Wisconsin.