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State firefighters union says number of COVID-19 cases are rising

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- While many of us are "Safer at Home," the work of firefighters and first responders doesn't stop.

So along with the dangers they normally see on the job, the coronavirus pandemic has been added to the list. Michael Wos of the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin says every call could mean coming in contact with COVID-19. "We don't know if that broken leg is someone that may be symptomatic," Wos said.

And the state union says many of their members do not have the personal protection equipment they need to stay safe. Jerry Biggart is on the executive board of PFFWI, and a firefighter in Milwaukee County, and says every firefighter should have an N95 mask for every call, but that isn't happening. "Our members have absolutely had to go out on calls without N95 masks." Biggart says departments have had to be very aggressive in reusing N95 masks, in part because they are wary of buying counterfeit masks on the open market.

While they are still working on exact numbers, Biggart says "numerous" firefighters across the state have COVID-19, and cases seem to keep coming in. "I get a call every morning essentially of new members who are COVID positive," Biggart said.

Adding to firefighters' anxiety on the job, according to Biggart, the COVID-19 relief package signed into law last month. If a first responder contracts coronavirus, they have to prove they were exposed to it on the job to claim state workers compensation benefits. Biggart would like the state legislators to treat every case of the virus as a line of duty sickness. "Our members have had no additional benefits or protections even though we're on the front line," Biggart said.

There's one simple thing CBS 58 viewers can do to help firefighters do their job safely: take fire safety seriously. With more people at home, more people are doing their own cooking, and using heating and electricity. That has lead to more deadly fires. "Fire deaths are up 79-percent compared to this time last year," Wos said.

PFFWI has some simple fire safety tips listed on their Facebook page.

1) Make sure you have a working smoke alarm in every room, outside of every room and on every level of the home. Test monthly!

2) Identify two ways out of every room.

3) Know and practice your fire escape plan with your family.

4) Keep electrical outlets free of multiple cords and adapters.

5) Blow out all candles before you leave the room or go to bed.

6) If you smoke, smoke outside. Most deaths result from fires started inside.

7) Make sure that all butts and ashes are completely out before throwing away. Dousing in sand or water is the best way to do that.

8) Sleep with your door closed. A closed door may help slow the spread of smoke, heat and fire.

9) Stay in the kitchen while cooking.

10) Keep anything that can catch fire at least 3 feet away from any heating source -- this includes fireplace, furnace, stove, or portable space heater.

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