The “Unmasking Our Heroes” exhibit and video share the stress and community support FDNY EMS personnel experienced in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic
“Unmasking Our Heroes,” a new exhibit at the New York City Fire Museum, featuring a video and artifacts collected from the community and EMS personnel, tells the story of how FDNY EMTs and paramedics responded to the overwhelming caseload of COVID-19 patients in March and April, 2020.
Visiting the exhibit and talking to Jennifer Brown, Executive Director of the New York City Fire Museum, took me back to the uncertainty of lockdowns, school and business closures, and mask mandates, when we didn’t know much about the virus’s spread and lethality. The exhibit also reminded me of the ongoing need to honor the tireless round-the-clock response and personal sacrifices made by EMTs and paramedics everywhere.
The highlight of the exhibit is the “Unmasking Our Heroes” video which features Captain Lorena Concepcion-Martinez, Paramedic Juan Gavilanes and EMT Michael Watenberg, recalling the stress of responding to the city’s highest-ever call volume, including unprecedented numbers of cardiac arrest patients, while also managing the uncertainty of being separated from loved ones and not knowing how much worse things might get.
“The men and women of FDNY were on the front lines, responding to countless calls – at one point more than 6,500 in one day – for medical assistance related to the pandemic,” Brown said.
Concepcion-Martinez, now a FDNY EMS deputy chief, Gavilanes and Watenberg recall the toughest challenges they faced in the video. For Watenberg, it was isolation from his family. For Concepcion-Martinez, it was the delicate balance of supporting the health and emotional wellbeing of her personnel.
Preparation for the exhibit began in 2020 in response to a department request to preserve artifacts, such as signs posted at EMS stations. Work on the exhibit continued with the 2021 EMS Week recognition of paramedics and EMTs who responded to the worst weeks of the pandemic in the Spring, 2020. The video was created in 2021 and was first available for public viewing when the exhibit opened in April.
Showcased in the official museum of the FDNY, the exhibit focuses on FDNY EMS even though EMS response in New York City is provided by a mix of FDNY EMS, private EMS providers, hospital-based systems and volunteer services.
“Members really appreciate the recognition and spotlight they are receiving,” Brown said.
Community support for EMS
You might recall that in the early weeks of the pandemic, New York city residents would stand on their porches or in their open windows to cheer for and salute the city’s healthcare workers and emergency responders. Their support extended to signs, meals delivered to stations, and other messages of appreciation. The museum has collected and displayed some of the signs that were left at or sent to FDNY EMS stations.
“A lot of people in New York City realized how critical we are as a service,” Concepcion-Martinez said.
Museum visitors can add their messages of appreciation and support for EMS by adding a card to a gratitude wall. Visitors from around the world and of all ages have already contributed to the gratitude wall, a living testimony to the ongoing appreciation people have for EMTs and paramedics.
EMS story is still being told
The story of the COVID-19 pandemic is not finished. Historians in the decades ahead will use the digital and physical artifacts preserved by the New York City Fire Museum and others, to continue telling the story of the contributions and sacrifices of EMS personnel in the early 2020s.
“It is important to have a record from the early months and pre-vaccine because the story is still unfolding,” Brown said.
We should all contribute to the unfolding of the pandemic story by preserving personal and organization artifacts. Preserve your memories of the pandemic in a letter or video to yourself or your children, by answering questions like the ones posed to Concepcion-Martinez, Gavilanes and Watenberg.
- What was your focus in the early months of the pandemic?
- What was essential to you?
- What were the lasting impacts of the pandemic?
Share your pandemic reflections with us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
EMS is the place to be
History will look back fondly on EMS providers everywhere for their sustained acts of caring and compassion. EMS providers were patient-centered and mission-focused.
“No other place I would have rather been,” Watenberg said.
When asked about the lasting impact of the pandemic, Captain Concepcion-Martinez said, “Looking back makes me realize how much I want to be here.”
The “Unmasking Our Heroes” exhibit delivers an important message to the public about how EMTs and paramedics choose to serve their communities and – when conditions are at their worst – there is no other place EMS would rather be than on the front line.
Note: The “Unmasking Our Heroes” video, currently, is only available for viewing at the museum.
“Unmasking Our Heroes” tells the story of how FDNY EMTs and paramedics responded to the overwhelming caseload of COVID-19 patients in March and April, 2020. (Photo/New York City Fire Museum/FDNY)
The highlight of the exhibit is the “Unmasking Our Heroes” video which features Captain Lorena Concepcion-Martinez, Paramedic Juan Gavilanes and EMT Michael Watenberg, recalling the stress of responding to the city’s highest-ever call volume. (Photo/Greg Friese)
Visitors from around the world and of all ages have already contributed to the gratitude wall, a living testimony to the ongoing appreciation people have for EMTs and paramedics. (Photo/Greg Friese)
The entrance to the exhibit. (Photo/Greg Friese)
A support sign from 2020 hanging in the NYC Fire Museum. (Photo/Greg Friese)
Turnout gear of FDNY Chaplain Mychal Judge, who died on Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo/Greg Friese)
Historic apparatus displayed at the NYC Fire Museum. (Photo/Greg Friese)
Entrance to the New York City Fire Museum. (Photo/Greg Friese)
Visit the NYC Fire Museum
Add the New York City Fire Museum, the official museum of FDNY, to your next New York City visit itinerary. The “Unmasking Our Heroes” exhibit is open through August 2022. In addition, there are other permanent exhibits at the museum. The 9/11 Memorial contains the first permanent memorial to the 343 FDNY firefighters killed on 9/11 and the turnout gear worn by FDNY Chaplain Mychal Judge.
Other exhibits trace the department’s early history, featuring portraits of chiefs and restored fire apparatus. The New York City Fire Museum, in Lower Manhattan, is a logical stop to add when visiting the 9/11 Memorial and Museum and the NYC Police Memorial. Learn more about the museum at their website or Facebook page.
About the author
Greg Friese, MS, NRP, is the Lexipol Editorial Director, leading the efforts of the editorial team on Police1, FireRescue1, Corrections1 and EMS1. Greg served as the EMS1 editor-in-chief for five years. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s degree from the University of Idaho. He is an educator, author, national registry paramedic since 2005, and a long-distance runner. Greg was a 2010 recipient of the EMS 10 Award for innovation. He is also a three-time Jesse H. Neal award winner, the most prestigious award in specialized journalism, and the 2018 and 2020 Eddie Award winner for best Column/Blog. Connect with Greg on Twitter or LinkedIn and submit an article idea or ask questions with this form.