Durham fire chief says possible COVID-19 exposures not affecting services

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos responded Tuesday to reports that more than 30 Durham firefighters across five stations were out for possible COVID-19 exposure.

"First and foremost, this department has continued to fulfill its mission of keeping Durham residents safe throughout this global pandemic," Zoldos said.

The International Association of Firefighters local 668 said Fire Station 1 was affected and said that recently there have been upward of 65 people out at a time.

In total 35 firefighters have tested positive for the virus since March, according to Chapter President Jimie Wright.

IAFF 668 said Monday that 35 firefighters are currently out from three different shifts across five stations.

On Tuesday, Zoldos said some of those numbers were not accurate.

"The numbers of employees recently reported as being infected or quarantined due to COVID-19 are not accurate," Zoldos said in a release Tuesday. "As of today, there are currently 21 Operations personnel out for quarantine, which is only 5.9% of our Operations staff. Since March 2020, a total of 30 of the Operations staff, which is 8.3%, have tested positive for COVID-19. These numbers are low when compared to the general public and very manageable when ensuring that our service expectations are met."

More than 400 people work in the department across 19 stations

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Durham fire officials discuss how COVID-19 exposure is impacting fire departments.



IAFF Local 668 represents 65% of firefighters in Durham.

"There's a lot of worry that this is something you're going to take home back to your family. Are you going to spread it in the station and someone else takes it back home to their family?" Wright said.

So far they've been able to move staffing around and maintain services to the city.

"Early in the pandemic, we took positive action to ensure the safety of our firefighters so we could continue to provide exceptional service to our residents," Zoldos said. "These actions included reducing exposures and 3-D printing our own N95-equivalent masks. We have continued to modify our internal controls to ensure that we are ready when our community needs us. When we do have COVID-exposed personnel, we quarantine all exposed to stop the spread and keep our other firefighters as well as the public safe. We also take strides to ensure that our service is uninterrupted by using overtime or shifting personnel as needed to keep all of our fire stations ready at all times. "

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Wright said he applauded the fire department's changes in protocols including mandating masks inside stations and changing the way they cook and eat meals.

Wright said the fatigue factor though is real.

"Mental health in emergency services is huge right now pre-COVID and you can imagine the impact COVID has had especially now that we're getting close to a year into this," he said.

Durham fire officials said response time has not been affected by the members who have tested positive or who have quarantined.

"Everyone has been affected by this pandemic and the Durham Fire Department is certainly not immune, but our local fire engines are staffed today and always to take care of our community in their time of need," Zoldos said.

Since March, 61 people in the Raleigh Fire Department have tested positive for COVID-19.
Officials there say they feel "fortunate."

The Fayetteville Fire Department said they have had 38 positive cases since the pandemic started.

Chief Mike Hill said they average around a dozen firefighters out of service at a time because of possible exposures to COVID-19.

He said it hasn't impacted services likely because of the precautions put in place at the beginning with adequate space in the fire station and physical barriers where firefighters sleep.
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