The Essay

The Essay: Why Wyrsch Worries

By Dr. Jennifer Brokaw

Illustration by Jon Stich.

On Wednesday, September 9, 2020, the sun did not rise in San Francisco. A dim orange glow through smoke and ash illuminated the unholy hush of a pandemic. For Deputy Fire Chief Victor Herman Wyrsch, second in command at the SanFrancisco Fire Department, it wasn’t a shock. He’s seen that light many times before.

Chief Wyrsch is a third-generation firefighter and says the love and respect for his father, Herman Wyrsch, still echoes within the department. “He was a helluva firefighter. He always told me, ‘You can spend a life building a reputation and destroy it with one bad decision.’ I think about that every day.”

When Jeanine Nicholson was appointed chief of department in March of 2019, she almost immediately asked Wyrsch to be her second in command. “I picked him because he commands the respect of the rank and file, and because I knew the city would be safe in his hands,” Nicholson says. Wyrsch claims he took the job only because it would make his dying mother proud. “I never aspired to this high-profile administrative position. I would have been happy as a battalion chief for the rest of my career.”

He isn’t a tall man, but Wyrsch’s voice gives him big presence. It’s a voice roughed up by his 31 years in smoke. He walks like a man who’s got a lot of miles on the odometer, but after nearly losing the bottom half of his leg in a heli-ski accident in 2011, a knee replacement has kept him in the game.

Like most veterans of the fire service, Wyrsch has seen some horrible stuff at fires. He won’t talk about it. Nevertheless, his friend Tony Stefani says, “Vic is a master at imagining and planning for the catastrophic result of any fire.”

I began work as the department physician on March 16, the day the City’s shelter-in-place was announced. On my first day on the job, I voiced my fear that the virus was highly contagious. Wyrsch piped in: “Doc, the thought of it has kept me up all night for a week.” I gave him a knowing smile; I hadn’t slept much either

Turns out, the threat of COVID isn’t the only thing that keeps Wyrsch awake. “COVID, a big earthquake and civil unrest are my top three,” he admits. “Fires, fighting fire, nothing about that scares me.”

COVID was an unexpected addition to a long list of worries of the fire department that serves San Francisco. Amazingly, it wasn’t until June that we had a work-related case, despite hundreds of interactions with infected citizens. Other fire departments reached out to find out what we were doing to keep the virus away. Wyrsch reveled in it. He said, ”I wanted to keep batting 1000.”

Fire departments run on rules, which helped us with our streak, but firefighters are also a stubborn lot. When I proposed face coverings in the homelike atmosphere of the firehouse, it didn’t go down smoothly. To be honest, I wasn’t always sure whose side Chief Wyrsch was taking. He confessed, “I knew the masks weren’t going to be popular in the firehouse. I came up in the era of tough guys who smoked cigarettes while fighting a fire. … But now I know they’re important. When I saw the numbers out of FDNY, I got scared.” As of April, 33 NYC firefighters had been hospitalized, and eight died.

Wyrsch has been known to blow up when things aren’t going according to plan, and when Wyrsch yells, everyone pays attention. As a result, most firefighters sport face coverings these days, even in the stations.

In late spring, Father John Green, the longtime spiritual and emotional center of the department, decided to turn in his radio. Father Green, now in his 70s, had been a rock for so many who’d experienced traumatic events during their time as sworn members, especially Chief Wyrsch. I was not aware of it, and may not have approved of it, but Wyrsch arranged a surprise salute as Father Green exited headquarters for the last time. Multiple engines and roughly 50 firefighters gathered in the street to send the chaplain off. Pictures were taken and a few members reached out to squeeze Father Green on the arm. Among those was a young firefighter who tested positive for COVID-19 two days later. When he heard, Wyrsch lost it and called our office at least a dozen times to see if we could help get Father Green tested as soon as possible. His test was negative, thank God.

Wyrsch is quick to extol the quality of firefighting at SFFD. “We are aggressive. We enter buildings to put water on fire quickly. We’ve earned a reputation for being good.”

A few weeks ago, the CaliforniaDepartment of Forestry and FireProtection needed help fast when freak lighting ignited several wildfires at once. San Francisco firefighters were quick to raise their hands. That presented staffing challenges for Chief Wyrsch, but he was pleased to see that Cal Fire was giving SFFD the respect it deserves. “They used to put us in the back of the line, but they knowhow good we are and we’re getting put forward now.” When eight of the first 50 members deployed returned with COVID symptoms, Wyrsch dropped his chin to his chest.

Even though he’s nearing the age when most firefighters hang it up, Wyrsch’s retirement announcement last month felt unexpected. I asked him if the stress of the pandemic had anything to do with it. He said, “My doctor and my family told me it was time to take care of my own health.” I seconded the notion, then said, “If there are retirement parties for you, will you make sure everyone is in a mask?” He replied in a weary tone, “Doc, don’t worry. I won’t let any parties happen for a while. It’s not the right time.”

Dr Jennifer Brokaw, department physician for the SFFD, joined the department on the eve of the City’s shelter-in-place order in March.

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