More than 30 members of the Spokane Fire Department are in self-quarantine in an attempt to stop the spread of sickness amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The firefighters – representing about 10% of the department –were exposed to patients who had symptoms similar to COVID-19. As of Thursday morning, none of them had received a positive test for the novel coronavirus – though one firefighter is in the hospital.
Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said the department must take extreme precautions to prevent the spread of the illness. And the department is shifting some operations in partnership with a neighboring fire district to allow firefighters to isolate themselves from family members if they are concerned about spreading illness to their families.
Firefighters who normally respond from Spokane Fire Department Station No. 6 on the West Plains have a new home at Spokane County Fire District 10 Station No. 10-1 as Station No. 6 is turned into a quarantine facility for Spokane firefighters.
The two fire departments border each other on the West Plains and frequently help each other on calls under a mutual aid agreement. This move takes that a step further by having a Spokane engine respond to calls from a District 10 station.
“We’re collaborating with them to protect the area, as we did before,” Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said.
Station No. 6 on South Spotted Road is being turned into a place to stay for firefighters who worry about possible exposure to COVID-19 and don’t want to risk taking it home to their families, Schaeffer said.
“Many of our firefighters are parents or taking care of frail and elderly parents,” he said. “As part of our duties, we get exposed. They have the option to go to Station 6 and stay there and not go home. We had to come up with a solution to protect spouses and families and significant others.”
Firefighters are at risk because they are exposed to bodily fluids and exposed to patients who may have COVID-19. There’s always a chance the personal protective equipment they wear could fail, Schaeffer said.
It’s not an abstract risk. Schaeffer said 33 Spokane firefighters have quarantined themselves at home after possibly being exposed to COVID-19. Of those, 11 are showing symptoms similar to those caused by the virus, and one firefighter is in the hospital. “We’re starting to see the effects,” the fire chief said. The staff out on quarantine represents about 10% of the fire department.
Schaeffer said keeping enough firefighters on duty may become an issue if the outbreak continues to worsen.
“I have significant concerns about the long-term picture, depending upon the length of this event and the effect on our staff and the overall health care system,” he said.
Schaeffer said at least some of the firefighters in voluntary quarantine have been tested, but they had not gotten results as of Thursday morning.
“When they first started getting sick, there was a shortage of tests,” he said.
The firefighters are in quarantine, even though it’s not known if they have the virus, to protect the public, Shaeffer said. If firefighters come down with COVID-19, they could carry it into people’s homes, assisted-living centers or hospitals. “We’re a perfect vector,” he said. “It’s an extreme situation that requires an extreme response.”
Because people can spread the coronavirus without having symptoms, firefighters are now wearing full protective gear at all medical calls.
Schaeffer said he worked with the Spokane Firefighters Union to set up Station No. 6 as a place for firefighters to go. “We’re working together to make sure we protect all of our members,” he said.
Schaeffer said he’ll continue to do what he can to ensure everyone’s safety.
“It’s definitely a marathon, not a short race,” he said.
Fire District 10 Fire Chief Ken Johnson said it was only natural to offer space in Station No. 10-1, located at 929 S. Garfield Road in Airway Heights, to Spokane firefighters and equipment. “Pretty much all the departments that border together work with each other, even more so with this,” he said. “The more we can work together, the more effective we will be.”
The two fire stations, though they are in separate departments, aren’t too far apart. “We’ve got so many different departments in the West Plains in a close area it just made sense to work together,” he said.
Johnson said he’s just happy he had the space to offer. “This is our main station here, so it’s a little bigger than our other stations,” he said. “Not very many departments have open bays that are available.”
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.