By Rachael Cardin

BALTIMORE (WJZ) — A surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations is putting a strain on first responders as 911 calls increase and staffing shortages stretch the fire department thin.

As a result, firefighters are asking the public to use discretion before making an emergency call.

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WJZ visited Fire Department Station 17 in Baltimore County, where ambulances and fire vehicles have been in and out all day.

Calls have ramped up as COVID-19 surges across the country.

Of the 1,000 firefighters and EMTs in Baltimore county, 10% are in quarantine because of a positive test or exposure.

John Sibiga, President of IAFF Local 1311, said members of the medic unit staff are pulling 24 to 38-hour shifts to keep up with the workload.

These staffing issues, compounded with the increase in calls, are causing the 30+ ambulances to be stretched thin.

In some cases, an ambulance ride might not be an option.

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“If a patient is being transported by fire engine, there’s no cause for alarm,” Sibiga said. “[It’s] the fastest quickest way to get the patient to the hospital.”

In Baltimore City, a spokesman for the fire union says they have been understaffed for some time.

“When you add this to hiring and retention issues, it’s crippling our department,’ the spokesman said. “Understaffing, frivolous calls and hospitals being used as primary care doctors caused this crisis.”

County Executive Johnny Olszewski says he has no doubt that some residents need help.

“When people called, they rightfully expect that someone will show up,” said Olszewski. “Our systems have been stretched to the limits.”

Sibiga reiterates that it is important to only call for true emergencies.

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“Not for the hospital being your primary care physician, Covid testing or anything like that,” says Sibiga. “It should be true life-threatening emergencies, like trouble breathing, heart attacks, those kinds of issues. That’s what people should be calling 911 for.”

Rachael Cardin