SWFL firefighters mourn loss of one of their own to COVID-19

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Firefighters in Southwest Florida are mourning the loss of their fellow first responder, Anthony “Tony” Christensen, who died of COVID-19 Tuesday after more than a month of treatment. Christensen was a beloved member of the fire rescue community, who served more than 20 years in the region.

First responders face an even tougher battle during COVID-19. There are new dangers with every call.

We spoke to firefighters Tuesday about how they’re trying to stay safe.

Firefighters live by protocol with safety at the center of everything they do. The death of one of their brothers to COVID-19 hit them hard.

Christi Kulwicki is the public education officer with North Fort Myers Fire Control & Rescue Service District. He explained the impact a death such as Tony’s has on their community.

“Oh, it’s devastating,” Kulwicki said. “I mean 22 years in the fire service, and you pass away from a terrible virus.”

Fire Chief Larry Nisbet of Bayshore Fire & Rescue was also hit hard by the loss.

“At first, I was like, ‘Is that right?” Nisbet said. “I was like, ‘Is this correct?’ And then after getting a few phone calls and emails, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is actually happening.’”

It’s a grim reality for so many families locally and nationwide.

“We’re dealing with a firefighter COVID death,” Nisbet said. “It’s a majority of the firefighters we’ve heard, the symptoms have been extremely mild, and then you have one, and it’s not. And I think that’s gonna be the hardest part is getting her head wrapped around is why was this one different.”

At Bayshore North Fort Myers fire departments, both consider themselves fortunate, with no cases of COVID-19 so far.

And, in the wake of their brother’s death, it’s a reminder to keep themselves and one another safe.

“When it could possibly be a COVID case, we wear full gown, gloves with every call again also, and the [N95s] and the goggles,” Kulwicki said.

“Every call that we run to right now with an EMS call that we run with if we’re working with a patient, we have an [N95] mask on, and we put a surgical mask on the patient,” Nisbet said.

The two firefighters we spoke to said they’re planning on helping escort Christensen to the funeral home, which is expected to happen Tuesday night.

Fire departments step up to support Naples Fire-Rescue

Firefighters across Southwest Florida are stepping in to help the Naples Fire-Rescue while its first responders are grieving the loss of a brother.

Many people in Naples knew Firefighter Tony Christensen personally. The Naples city manager called him a courageous colleague and friend.

The flag at the Naples fire station is at half-staff, honoring their brother, who died of COVID-19 Tuesday after receiving treatment for over a month.

While the crew is spending time together to process losing one of their own, other fire departments around town have stepped in to help them during the difficult time.

You couldn’t catch him at a time he wasn’t smiling,” said Chief Pete DiMaria of Naples Fire-Rescue. “He had a heart of gold.”

The City of Naples fire department is devastated after losing Christensen to COVID-19. DiMaria explained he and Christensen go way back.

”I sat next to him in algebra class,” DiMaria said. “We call ourselves brothers, but he was like a real brother to me.”

Christensen served the department in Naples for for 22 years.

“Thoughts, prayers, our hearts just go out for Tony’s family and all our brother and sisters at the City of Naples,” said Chief Kingman Schuldt of Great Naples Fire Rescue District. “We are doing whatever we can do to support them over the next several days.”

That includes helping with emergency calls for Naples Fire-Rescue.

Tony’s death is having an impact beyond Naples, beyond Collier County and beyond Southwest Florida.

“Hits the fire service community as a whole, not just locally in Southwest Florida but statewide,” said Chief Larry Nisbet of Bayshore Fire & Rescue.

Collier County Sheriff’s Office is also mourning the loss of Tony.

And many are realizing no one is immune to the virus, not even our local heroes.

“I hope Tony hasn’t passed in vain, but that this will somehow help us and the importance of doing everything we can do to limit this virus through our, the community,” Schuldt said.

“We’re doing everything that we can,” Nisbet said.

Fire departments all across Southwest Florida want to make sure they don’t lose anymore frontline workers to COVID-19 again.

“He’ll end up saving more of our people because we become more cautious and more opt to do the right thing to protect each other,” DiMaria said.

Greater Naples Fire sent a few of their trucks to provide coverage in the area while people attended the procession for Tony, and North Collier Fire Rescue District told us it’s helping in whatever way possible.

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