PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Coronavirus is likely the most challenging emergency call the Portsmouth Fire Department has ever responded to. 

The demands of COVID-19 have taken a toll on Portsmouth firefighters and paramedics. 10 On Your Side spoke exclusively with Portsmouth Fire Department Fire Chief Jim Hoffler about how his team is responding to those challenges. 

Hoffler confirmed that five PFD employees have tested positive for COVID-19. One of those first responders has been cleared to return to work.

This week, PFD was down 30 first responders who had to self-isolate due to possible exposure to COVID-19. In the last two weeks, the department has spent thousands of dollars in overtime to keep all of their companies in full service with the support of City Manager Dr. Lydia Pettis-Patton and Portsmouth City Council. The fire department is also actively hiring and training new first responders, despite the pandemic, Hoffler said. 

“We will keep everything in service,” Hoffler said. 

Many of those 30 first responders who were self-isolating were allowed to return to work on March 31 after the patient they helped tested negative for coronavirus. 

Hoffler said between 10 and 11 PFD first responders are still in self-isolation. They are monitoring their health and waiting for their COVID-19 test results to come back with definitive answers. 

It’s hard to determine how and when a first responder is potentially exposed to COVID-19, the chief said.

“They have so many contacts with so many patients, sometimes it’s hard to tell,” Hoffler said. 

But the Portsmouth Fire Department isn’t taking any chances. 

If a first responder is believed to have been exposed to coronavirus, or is presenting with symptoms themselves, they are being self-isolated at home out of an abundance of caution. The fire department is also offering first responders alternative living arrangements if they decide they do not want to go home and potentially expose their families. 

The PFD is working with the Virginia Department of Health and Maryview Hospital to test any firefighter who may have been exposed to COVID-19. Test results are coming in exceptionally fast — in about 2 days — allowing firefighters who test negative to get back to the job. 

The fire department is also taking guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on self-isolation and is working with the VDH to investigate possible COVID-19 exposures and alert all necessary contacts to prevent the spread of the disease. 

Running a fire department during a global health crisis isn’t clear cut. 

In the early days of the pandemic, Portsmouth firefighters and paramedics were not wearing medical-grade personal protective gear (PPE) to every call. The department was running low on PPE and had to wait for new shipments. Firefighters and paramedics would respond to calls without the PPE gear on over their uniforms, and only suit up if a patient had flu-like symptoms. 

That changed when a group of nine first responders learned that they may have been exposed to COVID-19 on a call on March 24. Fortunately, the patient they encountered eventually tested negative for coronavirus, but Hoffler said that experience changed the way the department handles emergency calls. 

“It was a learning experience for us,” Hoffler said, adding that the PFD has received several new shipments of PPE materials and are shopping for more supplies to aid their response during the pandemic. 

Now, firefighters and paramedics go to the scene dressed in full medical-grade PPE – gloves, masks, and hospital gowns — on top of their regular uniforms. When possible, one first responder takes the lead during an emergency call. That first responder will approach the home and try to speak with someone outside to evaluate the situation, then they relay information to the rest of the crew about the next steps of handling the emergency call based on their evaluation. 

Coming into work looks a little different, too.

Firefighters and paramedics have their temperatures taken and are screened for symptoms before they come into work and as they leave. The PFD also spent $16,000 on Wednesday to have Station 4 professionally disinfected after many of its workers were affected by potential contact with COVID-19. 

“It was expensive but we aired on the side of caution,” Hoffler said. 

Hoffler said taking these types of extraordinary measures is out of an abundance of caution — but it’s the right move for firefighters, their families and the public. 

“We worry about our people, but we worry about their families too,” Hoffler said. 

On Thursday, after the publication of this article, the Portsmouth Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics Association sent 10 On Your Side a statement in response to this report. The association is a union representing firefighters and paramedics who work for the PFD.

The association raised several concerns about staffing at the PFD. The association said that since 2007 the PFD has lost 18 firefighter positions in their budget.

“City manager Lydia Patton has raided the department of the necessary positions we need for public safety for years,” the association’s statement said.

During the COVID-19 crisis, the department has had to rely on “several members working up to, or over, 72 hours of overtime bi-weekly to keep all of our companies in service,” the association’s statement said.

“Having to utilize overtime to keep the city safe for the public is dangerous for our members,” the association wrote.

The association also raised other staffing concerns, saying that ambulances have gone to scenes without paramedics aboard “multiple times” during the COVID-19 crisis, and that firefighters and ambulances have had to work at stations they were not originally assigned to. The association said in their statement that they worry a crossover of work spaces has led to the spread of COVID-19 within the department.

“We are so understaffed that there is no way we can properly serve the public during large-scale emergencies,” the association wrote in their statement.

“Our organization is confused and disappointed in the comment made by Chief Hoffler in your news story from yesterday,” the association also said. “Our department is far from fully staffed.”

The association confirmed that Station 4 was closed on Wednesday for professional cleaning due to concerns about COVID-19, but said that no other stations have been professionally cleaned to prevent contamination. They said that the closure of Station 4 for cleaning represents a “clear danger to the public.”

“We ask the citizens, business owners, and guests of the city of Portsmouth to continue to pray for our members,” the association wrote in their statement. “We will continue to fight this virus and work to protect and care for our citizens.  We hope that when this pandemic ends and we return to business as usual that Dr. Patton, and Chief Hoffler will see how vital to the safety of the city that the staffing and retention needs of our department is finally met.”

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