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COVID-19 absences stretch understaffed Nashville Fire Department

Nashville fire department
Posted at 11:00 AM, Dec 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-08 19:37:31-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — More Nashville firefighters and EMTs were off the job in November because of COVID-19 than during any other month of the pandemic.

At least 124 firefighters and EMTs have tested positive for the virus so far, but many others have been on quarantine because of exposure.

It is impacting overtime in a department that is already understaffed.

Station 17 on West End was hit hard by COVID-19.

Mark Young, who is head of the Nashville Chapter of the International Association of Firefighters, said five of eight firefighters on the same shift tested positive for COVID-19.

He said their absences did not impact emergency responses because others worked extra hours to fill the openings.

"When you have personnel out with COVID or other type of leave you have to backfill with overtime," Young said.

"It's definitely stressful on everyone," Young said.

Young said there are other stations where multiple employees have been out at the same time.

The number of firefighters missing work due to COVID-19 infection or quarantine has risen steadily.

Weekly numbers show 17 firefighters were off work the first week of October.

But by the end of November 71 firefighters were off the job.

The current number missing work is more than double the department's previous high which took place over the summer, when 30 missed worked during two weeks in July.

"You don't want to get to the point where you are thinking about shutting down or browning out equipment across the city," Young said.

The Nashville Fire Department said service has not been impacted, and sent an e-mail stating it's "staffing to keep all units in service by back-filling vacancies with overtime."

Fire Chief William Swann said in April, as the pandemic started, that firefighters and emergency medical providers will be ready.

"If it's an emergency and people call 911 they expect us to show up, and that's exactly what we will do," Swann said on April 3 at a Mayor's media briefing.

Chief Swann told the Metro Council during a virtual budget hearing in May that the department has been understaffed for years.

"The biggest issue that we have to tackle is we know we need more staffing," Swann said in May.

He requested 60 new firefighter positions in the most recent budget, but only six positions were funded.

"Paying overtime is great, but you've got to have more staff so it will calm down the department and it will be more flexible and able to do more things," Swann said in May.

Overtime cost the department $4.8 million last fiscal year.

The department is on pace to spend even more this year.

The department said at this point there is no federal money to help pay for the overtime costs.

The increased overtime comes as overall call volume is trending downward.

The department reported a 6% decrease in responses last month.

The department tracks calls based on incidents and responses.

In November 2020, the number of incidents was down by 458 or 4.5% from November 2019.

Incidents numbered 10,181 in November 2019 and fell to 9,723 in November 2020.

Responses in last month fell by 1610 from the same month a year ago.

Responses numbered 25,024 in November 2019 and fell to 23,414 in November 2020.

But every call comes with the chance to come in contact with COVID-19 especially for EMTs.

"You put someone in the back of an ambulance and you're in a very tight space. Even though we have excellent PPE, the potential risk is very high," Young said.

Young said firefighters and EMTs are recovering from the virus if they get it, and they are hoping to be among the first to get a vaccine.

For now, if one person at a station gets COVID-19 it does not mean everyone is tested.

The department has said it does not consider working in the same fire hall as close contact.