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Firefighters demand more COVID-19 testing as the department deals with the virus

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Posted at 3:32 PM, Jul 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-30 19:39:04-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Nashville firefighters want more COVID-19 testing inside their fire halls.

Some tell NewsChannel 5 Investigates the department is reluctant to test because it's worried about having too many firefighters off work.

The department said it follows CDC guidelines for testing.

Its current policy was outlined in a March 19 memo which states, "Nashville Fire Department members will not be tested for COVID-19 if they are symptom free."

Fire Union President Mark Young is concerned the department only tests firefighters when they have symptoms.

He is worried about firefighters who come in direct contact with a fellow firefighter who has COVID-19.

He said if a firefighter finds out he has COVID-19 after working a shift or more in a fire hall, others in the fire hall should automatically be tested.

"If we know we have a positive employee and we know we have a direct contact. I think the direct contacts should be tested," Young said.

The Nashville Fire Department said 30 members have been infected with COVID-19, and as of early this week, 19 employees were in quarantine.

The department said it has made 500 known COVID-19 positive transports, and is "encouraged by the fact our number of COVID-19 cases in the department are relatively low when compared to the total known COVID-19 transports."

Council member-at-large Steve Glover said firefighters have told him they are concerned the department is not testing more firefighters.

"I can promise you they are in close contact with each other all the time," Glover said.

Glover said Metro should protect firefighters the way it attempts to protect the public, and use the same rules that it uses for businesses.

"Anytime somebody in a restaurant tests positive they make the restaurant close down. Take your own medicine. If that's what you are prescribing, live by it," Glover said.

Nashville fire says its testing policy follows CDC guidelines which are specific for healthcare providers.

The Department said "our safety office does not consider time in the fire station ... as close contact."

Some firefighters feel the department does not want them to test because Metro is worried about large numbers of firefighters missing work.

The Fire department said 168 employees have missed work since early April because of the virus - many were quarantined.

It has contributed to an increase in overtime costs.

The department said total overtime paid through May 31 of this year is $1,583,756 higher than it was at the same time last year.

That increase is not all because of COVID-19. It also includes overtime costs associated with the March tornadoes and the downtown protests.

Glover said the overtime reveals the department is understaffed.

He said the money spent on overtime could have been used to hire more firefighters for the department.

"All we ever do is pretend like everything is okay with our fire department and police department. It's not okay. We don't have enough people in those departments," Glover said.

"If we budgeted properly we could cut overtime down and actually give greater support in those departments," Glover said.

Fire Chief William Swann declined an interview but said in a statement, "We continue to update our COVID-19 protocols."

The Metro Finance Department expects to get federal money either from FEMA or through the CARES Act to cover much of the overtime expenses.

The department is filing for reimbursement with the federal government.

Here is the full statement from Fire Chief William Swann:

"We continue to update our COVID-19 Protocols to protect our personnel and the public. Our NFD personnel have done an excellent job adhering to these protocols when responding to calls for service. We would like to have no one in our department impacted by this virus, however that is not possible. We are encouraged by the fact our number of COVID-19 cases in the department are relatively low when compared to total known COVID-19 transports. This is directly tied to the professional job our personnel do on every shift."