PRESSED INTO ACTION EARLY: A month after this group of Fire Academy graduates was dispatched to city firehouses, a new cadre of 309 probationary Firefighters was graduated about 10 days ahead of schedule to provide reinforcements at firehouses where some company members have been forced to the sidelines because of symptoms of the coronavirus. One union leader put it this way, 'We have some of the most-dedicated people in the world, and they're putting their best foot forward.'  

The Fire Department slightly moved up the graduation of a class of 309 probationary Firefighters and effective March 16 implemented a strict system of 24-hour shifts keeping the same members of fire companies together in reaction to the growing number of firefighters potentially exposed to the coronavirus.

One source said late on the morning of March 19 that 107 firefighters were under home quarantine.

Some Working, But...

An FDNY spokesman, Jim Long, declined to break out firefighters from Emergency Medical Service workers and civilian employees, but said that among those three groups, more than 100 were either quarantined or "being tracked." Those in the latter category, he said, remain on full-duty status but are being monitored because they "may have been exposed" to the coronavirus.

Firefighters normally work day shifts from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and night tours from 6 p.m. to 9 a.m., although it is common for them to rearrange their schedules by swapping shifts—a move known as mutuals that often results in starting at 9 a.m. and finishing 24 hours later—for personal convenience.

They are now being assigned strictly to "24s" "until further orders," Mr. Long said, as a safety precaution. The intent, he said, was "to limit exposure of members to members" by keeping the same groups together to avoid further spread of the virus. The department has also discontinued the practice of allowing firefighters to take mutuals in other companies, also out of concern of spreading infection.

Firefighters have been instructed to use "social distancing" to the greatest degree possible when in their quarters, including meal times in the firehouse kitchens.

Uniformed Firefighters Association President Gerard Fitzgerald said in a phone interview, "We are the proudest fire department in the world. This is another challenge we are going through."

His counterpart at the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, Jake Lemonda, said, "This is an event that no one has ever experienced before at the local, state or Federal levels. We're pretty much in uncharted waters here, and the situation changes hourly. It's a very stressful situation for everybody."

Asked about the firefighters being "tracked" after possible exposure but remaining on full duty, he said, "The department has been very clear: they don't want any member, Fire or EMS, who is symptomatic to be working."

EMS 'Matching Partners'

Adjustments have also been made for Emergency Medical Technicians, Mr. Long said. "EMS is not doing 24s, but we've adjusted their schedules [for] matching up partners." He explained that while EMTs frequently work with multiple partners because their schedules vary, they are having tours adjusted to keep partners together.

Asked about the logistical challenge posed by riding in an ambulance where the space between EMTs is less than the six feet prescribed under social distancing, Mr. Long replied, "In that regard, there's only so much we can do."

The website The City, which first reported both the schedule changes and the accelerated Firefighter graduation, quoted from an FDNY Incident Management Team report that stated there were 47 EMS workers under quarantine, as well as four civilian workers, as of March 15.

Quarantine for Symptoms

One source said four days later that employees were no longer being quarantined solely out of fear they had been exposed; that it was now occurring only if "you're showing symptoms."

Chief Lemonda told The City that the new protocols were reached in consultation with the FDNY's Chief Medical Officer, Dr. David Prezant, and his top deputy, Dr. Karen Hurwitz.

He said the changes have reduced the social interactions that have always been a part of firehouse culture, both during meals and at the time of shift changes, "to limit exposure."

Stick With N95s

The City also reported that the Incident Management Team had instructed FDNY workers to ignore the requirement of some hospital emergency rooms that employees entering the facilities don surgical masks.

"At no time shall FDNY personnel lower PPE [personnel protective equipment] levels—going from an already donned N95 mask to a hospital surgical mask," the report stated.

That stance echoed the position adopted a week earlier by the New York State Nurses Association in objecting to guidance from the U,S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that it was permissible to substitute masks if no N95 respirators were available. That union has argued that surgical masks don't provide an effective seal of both the nose and mouth that is provided by the N95

Early Graduation

The probationary Firefighters were graduated about 10 days ahead of schedule to provide reinforcements at companies throughout the city which were left shorthanded by quarantining. Both FDNY officials and one of the new Firefighters told The City they had received all the necessary training before leaving the Fire Academy, although Mr. Long said some aspects of the training might be "revisited" later.        

But they, as well as the rest of the FDNY workforce, are being urged to "take the necessary precautions" available to them to avoid possible infection.  

Chief Lemonda told this newspaper, "We have some of the most-dedicated people in the world, and they're putting their best feet forward."

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