On the Front Line With Black Rock City’s Emergency Services Department Volunteers

Emergency Services Department (ESD) volunteers won’t be saving our butts on playa this year, but many are on the front line protecting, supporting and saving lives during the COVID-19 crisis. Meet some of our ESD long-timers and first-timers as they share a snapshot of themselves, their work, and the way their playa experience has informed their response to the pandemic.

Are you on the COVID-19 front line? Has your Burner experience informed the way you’ve responded to/prepared for the current crisis? Share your story here. 

Lillian Wong

“I am an emergency medicine doctor at Elmhurst Hospital Center located in Queens, New York. We’ve seen the worst and the best in people. Being on the frontlines and being a Burner share many of the same principles.

Radical Inclusion/immediacy: Everyone in the hospital has come together and become a part of the family/community — nurses,doctors, nursing assistants, hospital police, housekeeping, transport techs etc are all valued 

Gifting: The community has come together to donate and give what they can, from masks, faceshields, coveralls, food and well-wishes, to help us continue to fight the pandemic, and nothing was expected in return.

Radical Self-reliance: We have adapted everyday to the changes that occur, sometimes from hour to hour.

Radical Self-expression: We have been able to express ourselves in ways we didn’t know we could, from grieving, to loving, to having more compassion than we thought possible.

Communal Effort: We definitely have come together and participated as a community with a shared responsibility so that we may survive.“

Red Panther and Erica Jordahl

“We are flying air medical as a COVID Specialty Team (The Pod Squad) in northern Arizona. Being a Burner has certainly helped supplement our Personal Protective Equipment — our goggles, masks, and stash of personal N95s have been valuable resources! Lessons learned on the playa about Radical Self-reliance, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility and self-care certainly are put into daily practice these days. These are weird times, but we’re weird people — we’ve got this.”

Tony “Tangent” Berger

“I’m a seven-year Burner, a father of three, and married 22 years. I’m an Emergency Department doc in Northern California. I’m working the front line full time. Thankfully, we haven’t been hit too hard. I can’t wait for 2021. I’m from New York City, born and raised. Trained in NYC as well, so it’s been very tough to know what they’re going through.

For me, the Burning Man experience means community. After spending shifts as a medical volunteer for ESD, the fusion of community and caring has been heightened in my medical practice. COVID is awful and insidious, so keeping an open heart and mind while covered in goggles, masks and plastic gowns all of the time is challenging. Being a Burner makes it easier in many ways. Stay safe and understand that the default AND Burner worlds have changed, but as Burners we deal with change and diversity like champs.”

Julien “Barbie” Farges

“I work with New Orleans Emergency Medical Services. Burning Man, both in my ESD role and otherwise, taught me the importance of flexibility and making the best of any situation (it’s hard to see but we’re smiling under our respirators)! In addition to teaching me who I am, Burning Man helped me learn the importance of not judging people who might seem ‘weird’ or otherwise different than me. Community and coming together to ‘Mcgyver’ to solve problems with limited resources are also values I took from the playa and have applied to my full time job/everyday life.”

Elizabeth “Alphabetty” von der Ahe

“I saw a need by the southwest tribes of the four corners area for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and hand sanitizer to keep them safe. I was able to collect almost $5000 in donations and sourced over 1000 n95 and KN95 masks, as well as gloves, and hand sanitizer.

I had some native contacts from Standing Rock, as well as old friends, and I got the names and contact information of several tribal leaders, including three in Hopi Mesa villages. I reached out to Burners Without Borders and was directed to the Wednesday night meeting, and there I connected with some folks who have also been helpful. Molly Rose of BWB connected me with https://crowdsourcedcovidresponse.org/, and together we are all working on getting essential needs met for those tribes and other tribal nations.”

William Miller

“I am a cardiology critical care nurse at UC Davis, Sacramento. My unit is currently COVID-designated, and we’ve been very fortunate so far. We are a 10-bed unit and have absorbed no more than two COVID positives on any given day since it began. Of course, we know that this could change, especially if restrictions are loosened too soon, but we are prepared, thanks to those who have struggled before us (Italy, China, New York).

It’s funny because I’m the only Burner on my unit. They think I dance naked around big fires in the desert (only half-true). I’ve worked in post-earthquake Peru and Haiti with limited resources, so my perspective tends to be: complain for a minute, then get over it, figure it out, work with what you have, and go, ‘This ain’t Haiti, man!’

My wife is also a Burner, a doomsday prepper-lite, and a social worker who helps homeless veterans secure housing (also very much a frontline warrior). Being resourceful, a bit sarcastic in the struggle, and open to plot-twists (a few Burner traits, I think) certainly hasn’t hurt us. In fact, it’s been kind of campy at times, which is good for the family.”

Hannah “Florsilvestre” Hoekstra

“I’m working at the public hospital in San Francisco as a nurse at a COVID-testing site. I’ve been here three weeks since my disaster-worker deployment. I went from working three days a week to working six. It’s been an adjustment, but I’m feeling a great level of efficacy in my work. We are literally flattening the curve everyday.”

Elyse Shelger

“I work at two children’s hospitals, so thankfully I have not seen large numbers of positive cases at work. However, life has changed drastically during these times, both at home and at work. I have picked up extra shifts as a “screener” to check temperatures of anyone entering the building.

I have been blessed with great networking connections that have led to amazing support for myself and my colleagues. For example, one yoga brand, which halted apparel production in order to manufacture face masks, donated 150 N-95 masks to me, which I shared with my work colleagues.

As a Burner, I feel have been well-equipped to handle the changes we are experiencing and to live outside our comfort zone. The self-sufficient, yet community-oriented mentality ingrained in me has allowed me to stay strong for my friends, family, and community more than I can explain adequately.

My experience as a nurse in an unconventional setting like the playa has also helped me to adapt to the dramatic changes we face on the frontlines. Everything — policies, protocols, procedures, staffing — is changing daily. I have had no problem rolling with the punches, and supporting whoever I need to support in order to get the job done safely, as a team.

Stay safe, stay calm, burn on (eternally, no matter where you are).”

Tiffany “furygirl” O’Neal

“I’ve been working at a local hospital in Northern California as a nurse assistant, sometimes in the COVID area and other times in ICU. It’s been trying, but thank goodness the majority of our tests have been negative. Everybody is very helpful and caring as usual and the community has just come together to help out the small businesses, which is very nice. Just like on the playa sometimes you’re all alone at home and it’s a good time to self-reflect and take in the peace that nature brings. I live in the country so I sit outside and listen to the birds a lot and play with the animals.”

Amanda “Rapid Fire” Richey

“We started a resource Facebook group called Vegas Community Strong Resource Group, which has over 2,300 members! We provide information that is fact-checked and credible about anything COVID-related, unemployment and many more topics.

We also have been an amazing outlet for people struggling with financial hardships that can not afford food, diapers or anything. Within hours of posting about groceries or things they need help with, people receive deliveries to their door. The community just jumps on it and handles it! The admins now just sit back and watch that happen. It’s such a beautiful thing. Our admins also work 24-7 with the community to bring immediate assistance to those in need.”

We also decided to provide free masks to anyone in need. We’ve almost handed out 600 homemade masks. I started with only one seamstress and now we have eight. We were just given a huge donation from someone who found our GoFundMe. That money allows us to get more sewing machines, so soon we’ll have 10 seamstresses. We have no plan to stop anytime soon.

This has been one of the best experiences of my life; helping all of these people and just listening to them and hearing their stories.”


Top photo: Community support on the noticeboard at Elmhurst Hospital Center (Photo courtesy of Lillian Wong)

About the author: Jane Lyons

Jane Lyons

Jane Lyons (a.k.a Lioness) believes it takes a special kind of crazy to drive the foundation years of a Regional Burn, and she classes herself among those crazy dreamers and (over)doers who are sweating it out around the Regional Burn globe. After her first Nevada Burn in 2009, Jane spent five years knee-deep in the development of Australia's Burning Seed and its community. She built and managed Seed's Communications Team for many years, helped kickstart Melbourne Decompression and ran a range of other local events. But her Burner communities and collaborations stretch beyond the confines of her country. She helped build Temple of Transition in 2011; has worked on other big art projects on and off playa (including the Temple for Christchurch); and has run theme camps and built art at Nowhere, Kiwiburn, Burning Seed and Italian Burning Weekend. She now spends her time supporting Burning Man's Communications Team.

10 Comments on “On the Front Line With Black Rock City’s Emergency Services Department Volunteers

  • Dink says:

    They’re heroes! Oh my GOD honest to goodness HEROES. They’re like Superman and Harry Potter and firemen all rolled into one. They’re magical heroes! I wish you could hear how hard I’m clapping right this second.

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    • Kate says:

      Me too! Me too! And there are dozens more stories besides these. I’m so proud to know these amazing heroes. ❤️

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      • Dink says:

        I’m clapping so hard that my hands went numb so I had to start using my feet. When they went numb I started banging my head against the wall in applause for these heroes until I passed out and woke up gurgling on my own blood. They’re THAT amazing!

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  • Brody says:

    Thank you, ESD friends. <3

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  • Suzi "salty" Saunders says:

    Thanks to my fellow ESD volunteers!! I’m a midwife working in Northern CA. No covid+ pregnant ladies so far, but we’re working tirelessly to create protocols to ensure their safety should we have a +mama/ baby couplet. Recommendations are changing rapidly, so we “recreate” the wheel every few days. The experience of burner above who has volunteered in Haiti really spoke to me….I, too, have worked there. When you are in the thick of third world medicine, without even basic tools, the luxury of first world health care seems like a dream. You become very good at being flexible/ creative with solutions, using the tools at hand, and showing compassion to everyone. Kinda like the Playa……
    Dusty hugs, everyone. I will deeply miss you out there this year.

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  • Marnee says:

    Thank you, amazing ESD rock stars!

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  • Ugga Booga says:

    Sounds about white. (With the exception of the first)

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  • Phillip says:

    Please post your dancing videos. My wife is in the hospital and it makes me feel good knowing the nurses have time to choreograph dance routines. Another good idea would be make cooking show videos in patients’ rooms. Maybe hold a Ted Talk in the hospital about what’s it’s like working in a war zone and then have a DJ come out and all the nurses start twerking.

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  • Tiffany ONeal(Walker) says:

    Thank you Jane! What a wonderful group of people we are! Be safe! Love and miss you all!! ✌️❤️
    Furygirl

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  • Kimba says:

    Thank you. Take excellent care of yourselves. Can’t wait to see you on the playa again.

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