Half of Fla. city FFs test positive for COVID-19

The outbreak has forced Oakland Park to shut down one station for two days and depend on Fort Lauderdale for help covering shifts


Susannah Bryan
Sun Sentinel

Nearly half the firefighters in Oakland Park have COVID-19, forcing the city to shut down one station for two days and depend on Fort Lauderdale for help covering shifts.

Some firefighters say the department mismanaged the outbreak when it started to emerge. And some say they’re working up to 120 hours per week, or five 24-hour shifts every seven days.

Oakland Park was forced to close Fire Station 20 in late July after several firefighters got sick with the coronavirus. Fort Lauderdale firefighters are now staffing the station from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Two other firehouses are fully operational. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
Oakland Park was forced to close Fire Station 20 in late July after several firefighters got sick with the coronavirus. Fort Lauderdale firefighters are now staffing the station from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Two other firehouses are fully operational. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

The outbreak forced Oakland Park to close one of its three firehouses for two days in late July. The station is now being staffed part-time by Fort Lauderdale.

The first firefighter tested positive on July 15, Oakland Park officials say. Soon, there was another and another and another. And by Monday, more than two weeks later, 28 firefighters were out sick or in quarantine because they’d been exposed to the virus. That’s half of the 56-member department.

Fire Station 20, at 4721 NW Ninth Ave., closed because so many firefighters were out sick. Two have since recovered and returned to work on Tuesday, city spokesman David Rafter said. Two more are expected to return this week.

In all, 22 Oakland Park firefighters have tested positive for COVID-19, fire union leader Kraig Zauner said. The others are in quarantine because one of their family members tested positive for the virus.

Station 20 has since reopened, but is being staffed by Fort Lauderdale firefighters 12 hours a day starting at 8 a.m.

No one knows for sure just how the outbreak started, Mayor Matthew Sparks said.

Fire officials think it might have gotten underway when firefighters responded to a fire and had to take their masks off, the mayor said. A second theory has the virus spreading from a firefighter who came to work not realizing he was sick.

“I did hear there was one firefighter who was a super spreader,” Sparks said. “He was not aware he was exposed. If you are asymptomatic and are not aware that you’re sick, you can go to work multiple times and spread it. As with any virus, there’s a lag time. It could have been one of those scenarios where one person brings it in.”

As soon as one firefighter tested positive for the virus, the rest of his crew should have been told to stay home, Zauner said.

“The entire crew kept working and it kept spreading,” Zauner said. “That’s how I think it spread throughout the department. And here we are today.”

John Fretwell, a resident who lives a couple miles east of Station 20, said he was stunned to learn from a South Florida Sun Sentinel reporter that COVID-19 had devastated the department to the point that a fire station had to be closed.

“First I heard of it,” he said. “No one from the city told us. They’re not telling us anything. I’d like to see it blasted on the city website and in the newspaper. I think they should make it known to the public. You have to let the people know.”

The spread of the virus hasn’t hurt the city’s ability to respond to calls because Fort Lauderdale firefighters are filling in at the station affected by the outbreak, the mayor says.

“We do have two other firehouses still running at full speed,” Sparks said.

Those firehouses, Station 9 and Station 87, are fully operational.

As first responders on the frontlines, firefighters around the country are coming down with the coronavirus.

But it’s rare for an entire station to shut down, said Walter Dix, 12th District vice president for the International Association of Fire Fighters in charge of Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.

“In my district, it’s not common at all,” Dix said. “That is unusual. It would be more common for a smaller department. If they have some guys out, they’re going to have a tougher time staffing.”

Still, it has happened in other locales around the country, including Texas, one of the nation’s hot spots for the virus.

“Houston has had to shut down a couple firehouses,” said Doug Stern, director of Strategic Campaigns and Media Relations for the International Association of Fire Fighters. “But it’s not all that common to see a firehouse shut down. One exposure is going to take a heavier toll on a smaller fire department. New York City is going to have an easier time than a smaller one-firehouse department.”

Stern’s organization has been tracking firefighters who’ve contracted the virus since the pandemic started.

“We represent about 85 percent of full-time firefighters,” he said. “More than 2,500 firefighters of our 300,000 members in the U.S. and Canada have tested positive.”

Of those, 12 have died and 111 have been hospitalized.

Nearly 10,500 firefighters in the U.S. and Canada have been quarantined and another 5,120 have been forced to go into isolation in a room by themselves, separated from family members.

In Oakland Park, several firefighters have been forced to work mandatory double shifts to cover for those who are out sick, said Zauner, the union official.

“I worked 240 hours in two weeks and normally I work 96 hours every two weeks,” he said. “It’s out of control. There’s no way I’m on top of my game after working 48 hours straight.”

At full staff, the department has 63 firefighters. But the department has seven vacancies, leaving just 56 to staff the city’s three firehouses.

Fire Station 9 runs more than 4,000 calls a year, Zauner said. The other two stations run 2,500 calls a year each.

Zauner says firefighters were told by fire administration not to bother getting tested for the virus unless they started showing symptoms — a claim denied by City Hall.

Rafter, the city spokesman, says firefighters were not told to wait until they had symptoms to be tested.

Zauner says the firefighters who worked with the colleague who tested positive should have been immediately told to quarantine.

“If one positive pops up you isolate every member that was in contact with them,” he said. “And they should be notifying residents who came into contact with them.”

Oakland Park has not had to notify residents because none of them would have come into contact with a sick firefighter, according to Fire Chief Stephen Krivjanik.

“There’s no need [to contact patients],” Krivjanik said. “The firefighters were in PPE at all times. The risk is really to our firefighters and our crews. Remember the patients would be the ones exposing us. Not the other way around, usually.”

But masks do not offer 100 percent protection, said Stern, the expert from the International Association of Fire Fighters.

“Firefighters are wearing PPE, doing what they can to not expose anyone they come in contact with,” Stern said. “It does limit exposure, but it’s not a guarantee.”

In the meantime, Oakland Park fire crews weary from double shifts are looking forward to being back to full staff.

“I’m hoping [that happens] as quick as possible,” Zauner said. “At the earliest, it’ll be the middle of August. At the latest, the end of August.”

Susannah Bryan can be reached at sbryan@sunsentinel.com or 954-356-4554 or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan

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