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District’s fire, police departments preparing for potential surge of coronavirus cases in their ranks

Firefighters perform checks on a ladder truck at the Franklin Square fire station in NW Washington, D.C., on April 1.
Firefighters perform checks on a ladder truck at the Franklin Square fire station in NW Washington, D.C., on April 1. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
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Leaders of the District’s police and fire departments are preparing for the possibility that a large number of first responders may fall ill to the novel coronavirus or have to be quarantined, according city leaders, union officials and a member of the D.C. Council.

Authorities said both agencies are sufficiently staffed to answer emergency calls and can sustain that service even if many more first responders are sidelined. But the pandemic has prompted officials to update contingency plans that are in place for a crisis situation.

As of Monday, 34 members of the fire department, including an assistant fire chief, tested positive for the virus. Twenty-three members of the police force have tested positive. More than 430 from both departments were out on quarantine.

Kevin Donahue, the deputy mayor for public safety, said the two departments can each lose hundreds of members before reaching a breaking point, which he termed “diminishment of service.”

Speaking at a recent news conference, Donahue said, “We are nowhere near that right now.”

Authorities said those plans to bolster thinned ranks include using overtime and changing shifts in the fire department. And for police, those plans include moving detectives and others to fill patrol slots and cancelling leave and vacations. Officials would not describe what steps would be taken should those efforts fall short, but they said all possibilities are being considered.

Authorities warn the District might not meet its peak number of infections and deaths for at least two more weeks. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) told local hospitals that the city would need an additional 3,600 beds to handle a surge in coronavirus cases. On Monday, Bowser said “D.C. could be in the second wave.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has warned of an even more dire situation, repeatedly saying the Washington area could soon resemble New York City, the nation’s epicenter, where hospitals and paramedics are overwhelmed.

The federal government sent 200 ambulances and 500 medics to New York to help paramedics. And police there mobilized a team of several hundred officers to fill positions vacated after 20 percent of the 36,000 members called out sick on a single day.

D.C. Council Member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the public safety committee that has legislative oversight over the police and fire departments, said chiefs of both agencies in the District “have contingency plans in place for a worst-case scenario.”

Allen echoed pleas from both police and fire unions to ramp up testing for first responders “to help clear those who are negative so they can complete their quarantine and we can get them back in the field.”

Police struggle to maintain patrols while keeping a distance

The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, on the front line of combatting the deadly virus, has more than 2,000 members, including firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians. Many are cross-trained.

Dabney Hudson, the president of the labor union representing D.C. firefighters, said “who knows if anyone is really prepared” for what could come. “We’re positioned now, we can handle where we are,” he said. “We’ve got supplies.”

But, Hudson warned, “if the case load quadruples, then who knows.”

City firefighters and paramedics have responded to more than 730 emergency calls for suspicions of the novel coronavirus from early March through April 1. A fire department spokesman said a vast majority of the patients did not have the virus. On April 1, firefighters put on protective gear and masks on 56 calls.

But, thus far, even as the number of coronavirus cases increase in the District, the total number of calls for medical emergencies has dropped. On March 7, when the District’s first positive case became known, the fire department responded to 457 medic calls. On April 1, medics responded to 447 calls. On Sunday, those calls were 439.

The District has 1,101 reported coronavirus cases and 24 deaths .

The number of firefighters and paramedics who test positive or are isolated after possible contact with someone who has covid-19 changes on a daily basis.

Firefighters in the District work 24-hour shifts, followed by three days off. Hudson, the union president, said that helps the agency absorb a large number of absences because they’re often spread out over long periods where members would be off-duty. It also buys the department time to fill with overtime if needed and provides greater flexibility to shift personnel around to ensure fire stations are filled.

Police in many cities test positive for the coronavirus

Hudson said the fire department can lose 200 — and in some circumstances up to 400 — members and still operate efficiently, as long as most are not on the same 24-hour shift and the outage does not stretch over weeks. It takes 362 firefighters, paramedics and EMTs to fully staff every vehicle in every firehouse across the District. That number is locked in to meet national safety standards which sets minimum requirements for staffing apparatus.

Donahue said the fire department each day staffs 30 to 40 percent more firefighters than needed to fill those 362 slots, giving supervisors flexibility to staff fire stations that fall short. He said staffing assessments are updated every day based on the number of personnel available and the projected volume of calls.

The deputy mayor also said fire and other public safety agencies can use overtime to keep first responders beyond their scheduled shifts.

The D.C. police department, which has more than 3,800 sworn officers, has instituted new rules to try to prevent the virus from spreading through the ranks — and to and from civilians. Police officers get health screening before entering station houses, and cruisers used by more than one officer are sanitized between shifts. Officers are trying to minimize contacts with the public and are making fewer arrests.

Donahue said police have flexibility in moving command staff and supervisors into patrol if more officers are needed on the street. The department can also cancel scheduled leaves and vacations. Union officials said the shutdown has freed many officers from duties such as assisting in motorcades for dignitaries, and staffing demonstrations and large-scale events. Police did commit officers to seal off the Tidal Basin to prevent crowds at the cherry blossoms.

Donahue said that both the fire and police departments can lose up to 10 percent of their workforce before implementing emergency staffing plans or what he described as “more extraordinary steps.”

Officials with the police and fire departments declined interview requests, as did representatives from the mayor’s office.

Allen, the council member, said he is involved in regular talks with the police and fire chiefs and union representatives. “They’re drawing up plans for a variety of scenarios,” he said.

Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.

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