KC metro fire departments stress public responsibility amid COVID-19 pandemic

Posted at 6:57 PM, Nov 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-23 19:57:57-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Firefighters and first responders wear personal protective equipment while out on calls, but they still are at high risk for contracting COVID-19.

In Olathe, Capt. Mike Hall said in addition to protections while on call, crews adhere to safety guidelines at the station.

"Social distance at home, social distance at work," Hall said. "We kind of do live together 24 hours at a time. We do take a lot of precautions there, wearing masks inside the station, social distancing inside the station. And in most of our stations it's nice because our bunk rooms are individual bunk rooms."

Both Olathe and the Kansas City, Missouri, Fire Department have said their PPE supply looks good.

And in Kansas City, Missouri, Assistant Chief Jimmy Walker said the department has changed its approach in some ways.

"We send fewer people in the house to limit the number of people exposed," Walker said. "We try to get people outside in the open air sooner than we did before, if they're able to. We have changed some of our - how we handle things but not in any way that's going to endanger the public."

The International Association of Firefighters has urged state governors to give firefighters, EMTs and paramedics priority to a COVID-19 vaccine.

"By giving them the vaccine, we give them another tool to keep themselves and the community safe," Doug Stern, spokesperson for the International Association of Fire Fighters, said.

The IAFF said 17,000 firefighters across the U.S. and Canada have been quarantined, 4,000 have tested positive, 150 have been hospitalized and nearly 20 have died.

"One of the things we encourage fire departments to do is continue adapting, not just be satisfied with where you are but continue to learn," Stern said.

Departments in the metro will continue to do these things, but their message is this:

"We need to social distance, we need to wear a mask," Walker said. "It's incumbent on all of us to take personal responsibility to stop the spread."

At KCFD, 201 employees have tested positive for the virus out of about 1,300 employees.

KCFD has had to quarantine so many people who might have been exposed to the virus that it was cutting into the department's staffing levels. Walker said, for example, if one person tested positive, the 15 or so employees working around them would all be pulled off their shift to quarantine. That left the remaining employees to cover multiple shifts, which Walker said is dangerous.

As of about three weeks ago, the department no longer requires anyone who might have been exposed to COVID-19 to quarantine because of the staffing issue. However, the department issued a mask mandate at the same time.

"As long as we're all wearing masks, PPE, then that has been shown, it's been proven to reduce the spread," Walker said. "We're not doing anything to put the public at risk. The opposite of that is not having the staffing to not be able to respond."

Walker said they've always required employees to wear their masks out on calls and strongly encouraged them to wear masks in the fire houses. He said the latter was hard to enforce, but now employees must wear a mask at all times except when actively eating and drinking or sleeping.

KCFD has required temperature checks for its employees twice per 24 hour shift and once per 12 hour shift.

If a firefighter tests positive, they're placed in isolation. They will be tested again 12 to 14 days later. If they still don't test negative they are isolated until 20 days, at which time they are required to be symptom-free for 72 hours.