‘Saddened and disheartened’: In 2021, COVID a factor for all Wisconsin firefighter line-of-duty deaths

MADISON, Wis. — Across Wisconsin, firefighters have been particularly susceptible to dying of COVID-19–even moreso than their law enforcement first responder counterparts. In 2021, all six of Wisconsin’s line of duty deaths for firefighters and emergency medical service personnel were a result of COVID-19 complications, according to new data released to News 3 Now. At least eleven have died since the start of the pandemic.

“Every firefighter in the world wants to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem,” Chris Klahn said, who works for the Montello Fire Department and sits on the board of directors for the Wisconsin State Firefighter Association. “This pandemic has just been a struggle to try to keep ourselves healthy, our families healthy, and still respond to those calls for service.”

Klahn provided data from 2021-2022, kept by the Wisconsin Local Assistant State Team, which assists firefighters and their families in the wake of a line of duty death. Six fire and EMS departments lost an employee to COVID-19 in 2021. Just one month into 2022, two more line of duty firefighter deaths have been attributed to COVID-19. According to public data from the Wisconsin Fire & EMS Memorial, three additional firefighters and EMS personnel died from COVID-19 complications in 2020, bringing the total to eleven deaths since the pandemic started. Their departments count them as deaths in the line of duty.

“It’s disheartening. As much as we’ve tried to protect ourselves and continue to try to protect ourselves, there is exposure and breakthrough infections causing difficulties,” Klahn said. “It’s not only just the firefighters, it’s their families also.”

In Wisconsin, many firefighters are cross trained as EMS, meaning they’re often involved when someone with COVID-19 becomes sick enough to need an ambulance ride to the hospital.

“Virtually all of us are responding to EMS calls every day,” Klahn said. “We’re working with lots of different people and exposed to lots of different people.”

COVID has jumped to the top of leading causes of death for first responders in the last two years, both state and nationwide. Still, firefighter deaths in Wisconsin to COVID-19 far outnumber law enforcement deaths. According to a national report and the state’s largest police union, four police officers have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began in Wisconsin.

“For each of the last two years, COVID-19 has been the single largest cause of line of duty deaths for officers in the state of Wisconsin–that’s true nationally,” Jim Palmer said, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association.

Like the general public, vaccine hesitancy has impacted first responders. Nationwide, some first responder organizations resist vaccine mandates, and vaccine acceptance rates lag in some regions. Last fall, for example, only half of the Milwaukee police and fire departments had accepted the vaccine.

“I think we have the same problem that the general population of the United States has,” Klahn noted. “There is some reluctance, and I’m sure firefighters have made a personal choice if they choose not to be immunized.”

Palmer says that many larger, urban police departments in Wisconsin have put vaccine or testing requirements in place. He says the WPPA opposes a vaccine mandate, preferring officers have a choice. In smaller departments, Palmer says, requirements lag.

“I think in smaller, rural areas and departments in northern Wisconsin, I think it’s probably less likely.”

Wisconsin firefighter COVID-19 deaths

November, 2020: EMS Captain Kelly Raether, Ixonia Fire & EMS

December, 2021: Dave Tomlinson, Poynette/Dekorra Fire Department

December, 2021: Chief Donald Kittelson, Clayton Fire Department

May, 2021: Chief Frank Sanchez, Nekimi Volunteer Fire Department

May, 2021: Joshua Fedie, Boscobel Fire Department

October, 2021: Gary Berg, North Prairie Fire Department

October, 2021: EMT Daniel McCann, Bell Ambulance and Midwest Medical

November, 2021: Brandon Romo, Pardeeville Fire Department

December, 2021: Stephen Smith, Vandenbrock-Kaukauna Fire Department

January, 2022: Raymond Samson, Dale Fire & Rescue

January, 2022: Assistant Chief Robert Stevens, Wolf River Fire Department & Fremont-Wolf River EMS