After a Sparks firefighter tested positive for COVID-19 and a fire station had to be temporarily shut down for cleaning, city officials have decided to indefinitely suspend mutual aid assistance for out-of-state wildland fires.
The firefighter tested positive Sept. 16 after a two-week assignment working in California, forcing seven other firefighters to quarantine for a week and requiring the fire station to be closed for a night, according to a spokeswoman for the City of Sparks.
“To ensure we have adequate staff to keep our community safe, we are currently analyzing our wildland fire program. Right now, we are holding off on sending any personnel to out-of-state wildland fires,” said Julie Duewel, a spokeswoman for the City of Sparks.
The decision to stop sending Sparks firefighters to help fight the massive California blazes came from Fire Chief Jim Reid and was supported by Sparks City Manager Neil Krutz, Duewel said.
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Local union representatives said that they did not support the closure of the station and expressed frustration that fire administrators hadn’t taken precautions, such as creating pre-existing policy, to prevent the closure of a station should personnel be exposed to the novel coronavirus.
“We previously brought the concern to the attention of fire administrators, but their response was inconsistent at best,” said Jason Gonzalez, the union president for the Sparks branch of the International Association of Firefighters. “It seemed like they were unprepared for a positive test case.”
Union representatives said that the station closure was unnecessary because Sparks Fire Department is adequately staffed to cover for any leaves taken by crews to accommodate for out-of-state assignments and any necessary isolation time that may follow.
“Now they’ve said we can’t help out. With the wildfire season that California is having, I don’t think that as a union that we agree with not being able to help out with those fires,” said Gonzalez.
The 11 Sparks Fire crew members that currently are on assignment outside of Nevada will be allowed to finish their assignments as needed, city officials said.
No symptoms, but a positive test
Sparks deployed more than 50 firefighters this year to more than 20 separate fires in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, California, Idaho, and Colorado.
Four Sparks firefighters from Station Four, located at Vista Boulevard and Disc Drive in Sparks, deployed to work on the BTU Lightening Complex Fire in California on Aug. 31.
The four-person crew returned on Sept. 15, as firefighters are allowed to work no more than two weeks in a row.
Three of the four firefighters had cold like symptoms, including congestion and a cough, though these types of symptoms are common from spending two weeks fighting a wildland fire, Duewel said. All four crew members were immediately tested for COVID-19 through the county.
“The City of Sparks absolutely takes COVID-19 seriously,” said Duewel.
Those who had cold-like symptoms did not return to work immediately. However, the firefighter who did not have any symptoms did return to work mid-day Sept. 15, coming into contact with four other staff members that day and the following day. The crew member reported wearing a mask at all times, Duewel said.
While the three firefighters with cold symptoms tested negative, the firefighter who was asymptomatic received a positive COVID-19 test result the evening of Sept. 16. The firefighter was sent home and told to self-isolate.
The four people who worked with the positive case were also told to go home and quarantine, as were the other three firefighters that were on the wildland fire assignment and had initially tested negative.
Per Washoe County Health, personnel exposed to an asymptomatic person must quarantine for seven days prior to being tested. Sparks Fire Department is waiting on test results for all seven staff exposed.
Station closes overnight
Officials closed down the station at 6 p.m. Sept. 16, after the positive test result came in and reopened it the following day at 8 a.m. No calls were made in the district while the station was shut down, according to city officials. Additionally, no other engines had to respond into this district while the station was shut down.
As a result of the COVID-19 case, Sparks Fire now will require all firefighters returning from wildland assignments to quarantine until they can be tested for COVID. No wildland firefighters will be allowed to come back on shift until a negative test result comes back, according to city officials.
Sparks Fire has instituted a number of other directives at stations, including the requirement of N95 masks, gloves and eye protection on all emergency calls. No family members are allowed to visit the stations and on-site wellness checks must be completed daily, including temperature checks.
Sparks Fire has also altered its grocery shopping habits to limit shopping to once per two days to limit exposure to the public, and apparatus and dorm rooms are cleaned in between shifts.
Jenny Kane covers arts and culture in Northern Nevada, as well as the dynamic relationship between the state and the growing Burning Man community. She also covers the state’s burgeoning cannabis industry (Check out her podcast, the Potcast, on iTunes.) Support her work in Reno by subscribing to RGJ.com right here.