The Surrey Fire Service has been clobbered by COVID-19.
Ninety-eight out of 374 firefighters and 18 full-time dispatchers have been infected since Dec. 20. That’s 25 per cent of the fire department’s workforce.
“We’ve been having our staffing challenges probably since just before Christmas, around December 20th it started,” Fire Chief Larry Thomas told the Now-Leader on Friday. “And so we’ve been doing lots of innovative and creative things to make sure we maintain our level of service. We’ve been using the rapid testing kits that the city purchased.”
Thomas said roughly 225 staffers, more than half of staff, had close contacts or exposures to those infected with COVID-19 “and so we’ve been using rapid testing to make sure they can continue to work.
“If I would have had to send the staff that were COVID-positive and the ones that were in close contact home then we would have had a service degradation and so we managed to use rapid testing before the start of every shift for anyone that was considered a close contact and that’s enabled us to keep our trucks in service.”
Thomas added the department has also had to rely on staff back-filling and “a lot” of extra shifts.
The infections, he said, have been spread out over that “time horizon, which has been a month now. They all haven’t been off at the same time.”
But it’s been like a revolving door, Thomas said, where on a daily basis there’s “probably five per cent of the staff off on any given day, but it’s impacted 25 per cent of our staff over the last month.”
“Today there’s only nine vacancies but then tomorrow it will be a different shift and there will be nine or 10 people on that,” he said on Friday, Jan. 21, a day when 21 employees were off work because of COVID.
As far for the impact on service, Thomas noted there is the odd shift “where there’s a last-minute call-in, just before the shift starts, someone will have symptoms or call in sick and we have a hard time back-filling because we’re doing so many back-fill shifts. That happens more sporadically now so today all the trucks are staffed and yesterday they were all staffed but on one of the night shifts someone would phone in sick just before the start of shift and there’s nobody left to fill in, they already have nine people doing back-fill shifts to cover so it’s too late to get someone.”
Thomas noted that all essential services are “running into this,” including police, paramedics, ambulance, nursing staff, hospital employees, technical support people. “They’re all facing this crisis right now.”
“Thank goodness our city had purchased rapid testing in advance of this wave coming,” Thomas said. “It didn’t happen all at once, so the key was having it stretched out over this month so that it didn’t on any given one day impact service too negatively.”