It’s like getting pool water up your nose, they’ll tell you. Or wasabi.

But it doesn’t last long. Maybe 12 seconds per nostril with a six-inch swabber that reaches the sinus cavity where COVID-19 likes to live. Then you’re done.

That’s how Seattle Fire Department firefighters and paramedics put it when you are tested for the coronavirus. Simple, understandable terms, presented quickly and calmly, while looking you straight in the eye.

It’s what they know, it’s how they’re trained, and it’s why they’re thriving as the volunteer army behind a free COVID-19 testing program run by the City of Seattle.

The program, which started in June, is run out of two former state vehicle emissions testing stations in North Seattle and South Seattle and — on Aug. 7 — Rainier Beach High School.

The program is headed by Brian Wallace, a 14-year Seattle firefighter and paramedic who manages the emergency medical technician certifications for firefighters, and organizes thrice-yearly staff trainings where firefighters review their skills.

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Lt. Brian Wallace of the Seattle Fire Department juggles a phone call while putting up signs at the SODO testing site. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Lt. Brian Wallace of the Seattle Fire Department juggles a phone call while putting up signs at the SODO testing site. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

In January, SFD Medical Director Michael Sayre asked Wallace to include some basic training on infectious diseases. (“He just knew we were going to be on the front lines, and that we needed to have very stringent infection control in the field,” Wallace said.)

It was a prescient call. Weeks later, COVID-19 was diagnosed in Washington state, and Wallace expanded training to include a focus on virus control beyond wearing personal protective equipment.

“It all happened so fast,” Wallace said. 

Registration technicians talk at the start of the day. “They are bringing a high level of both customer services and efficiency to the testing,” says Lieutenant Brian Wallace. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Registration technicians talk at the start of the day. “They are bringing a high level of both customer services and efficiency to the testing,” says Lieutenant Brian Wallace. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

He was trained to administer the COVID-19 test by a nurse at Harborview Medical Center, then ran a clinic for first responders.

In May, firefighters began testing people at skilled-nursing facilities, where outbreaks were spreading, and where the county and local hospitals did not have enough mobile teams to do testing.

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“People were complaining that this wasn’t what we should be doing as a fire department,” Wallace said. “That may be true in normal times, but everyone is doing what we can to manage this.

“We didn’t want to hide under our PPE until this was over.”

Registration technician André Grady gives instructions for COVID-19 testing. “I like to help people, calm people down in a stressful situation.” he said. “It feels good to give back to the community.” (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Registration technician André Grady gives instructions for COVID-19 testing. “I like to help people, calm people down in a stressful situation.” he said. “It feels good to give back to the community.” (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

As more tests became available, Wallace and his team worked to expand the testing, from brainstorming about potential sites to recruiting firefighters and paramedics to provide their skills. They incorporate shifts at the testing sites into their regular work week.

“It’s not difficult to get people to sign on, once they see the expression of people coming through,” Wallace said. “We get to provide the calming reassurance we give people in an emergency situation.

Fire investigator Kristine Gill tests community members for COVID-19 at the City of Seattle’s Community Testing Site on Aurora Avenue N. “We see people sometimes on their worst day and we just try to make it better,” she says.  (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Fire investigator Kristine Gill tests community members for COVID-19 at the City of Seattle’s Community Testing Site on Aurora Avenue N. “We see people sometimes on their worst day and we just try to make it better,” she says. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
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“To me, this looked like a way to really make a difference,” he continued. “It’s natural for a firefighter to be presented with a situation and adapt our skill set to do something to really help things out.”

Michael “Miki” Mann has been with the Seattle Fire Department for 33 years, 27 of them as a paramedic. He volunteered in an effort to learn more about COVID-19 from direct and early interaction.

“There’s so much we don’t know,” Mann said. “We’re trying to gather as much information as we can, and then we’ll be able to leverage our experience here.

“We can present a lot of data, and there’s value in that.”

Devi Benkoczy is tested for COVID-19. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Devi Benkoczy is tested for COVID-19. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Firefighters and paramedics are trained to get a lot of information from people in a short amount of time.

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“You want people to trust you right away, so they’ll tell you what you need to help them,” he said. “You can get a good diagnosis just from listening to what people have to say.”

Alan Goto is a firefighter/paramedic — one of 64 out of 1,000 in the Seattle Fire Department. He deals with the “most serious, life and death situations.”

Fire investigator Kristine Gill tests Larson Reed for COVID-19.”I believe Seattle is doing the right and equitable thing for its residents by having free testing, regardless of insurance,” says Reed. “As a nurse, COVID testing is very important to me as it leads to quick identification of positive cases and those cases can be treated and isolated in a timely manner to prevent further spread of the virus.” (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Fire investigator Kristine Gill tests Larson Reed for COVID-19.”I believe Seattle is doing the right and equitable thing for its residents by having free testing, regardless of insurance,” says Reed. “As a nurse, COVID testing is very important to me as it leads to quick identification of positive cases and those cases can be treated and isolated in a timely manner to prevent further spread of the virus.” (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Testing people for COVID-19 isn’t much different, Goto said.

“Every person who shows up is very nervous,” Goto said. “My goal is not to get a test done, but to make their experience so smooth and easy that they will encourage others to do it.”

Seattle firefighter and paramedic Alan Goto, center, works at the Aurora Avenue North testing site. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Seattle firefighter and paramedic Alan Goto, center, works at the Aurora Avenue North testing site. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

The group routinely tests 1,200 people a day, and this week it passed 100,000 tests. The tests are funded by the City of Seattle, and individuals’ insurance covers lab processing fees. If people don’t have insurance, those fees are covered by a special fund administered through the state.

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At the Aurora Avenue North testing site, cars lined up as they used to for emissions testing. Firefighters wore face shields, rubber gloves and medical smocks. Near the entrance, those who made walk-up appointments stood in line, six feet apart, waiting to be checked in and tested under two tents.

Reusable PPE, like respirator masks and face shields, are stored in paper bags at the Aurora Avenue North testing site.  (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Reusable PPE, like respirator masks and face shields, are stored in paper bags at the Aurora Avenue North testing site. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Codie Will-Bratton, 27, of Mountlake Terrace, works in a store that sells groceries, which makes him an essential worker.

Will-Bratton decided to make an appointment once he started doing the math: “If I get infected, then it’s my wife. The six people I work with would be hurt. Not to mention my wife’s dad, who is immune-compromised.”

Registration technician Leighann Seaman sets up her station. “This job gives me hope,” she says. “I can’t count how many times a day I’m thanked by patients, just for being there. And, I always remember to thank them back, because it takes community participation to make a program like this work.” (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Registration technician Leighann Seaman sets up her station. “This job gives me hope,” she says. “I can’t count how many times a day I’m thanked by patients, just for being there. And, I always remember to thank them back, because it takes community participation to make a program like this work.” (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

He has seen customers come in without wearing masks, “screaming about their freedoms.”

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“It’s kind of sad, because it seems people have stopped caring for their neighbors,” he said. “I’m not a religious person, but ‘Love thy neighbor’ — where did it go?”

But he’s never been tested before.

“I was the first one on the store to start wearing a mask, so I’ve been trying to steer clear of people,” Will-Bratton said. “I’ve always been of the opinion that firefighters are always expanding the front lines. I’m not saying it’s expected of them, but I’m glad they’re doing it. It’s so good.”

Wallace hopes to continue to expand the program, so that more people can be tested.

Registration technician Antonesha Jackson talks to a community member about COVID-19 testing. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Registration technician Antonesha Jackson talks to a community member about COVID-19 testing. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

He said it is nice that people are seeing first responders in a meaningful way, at a historic time.

“We don’t know how this is all going to play out,” Wallace said, “but we do know that this is going to be the defining time of our careers. It’s been a lot of work and it’s been hard on my family, but I think in the end we have done everything we can to help our city, and it feels good to know that.”

Tijohn Rodde sets up drive-through lanes at the Aurora Avenue North testing site. Rodde says his job makes him feel like “I’m helping in some way.” (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Tijohn Rodde sets up drive-through lanes at the Aurora Avenue North testing site. Rodde says his job makes him feel like “I’m helping in some way.” (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)