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Phoenix firefighters' high rate of COVID illnesses puts strain on services, overtime spending

Almost half of all firefighters have been infected by virus over course of pandemic, according to city data. But they're more hesitant than others to get vaccinated.

PHOENIX — Almost half of all Phoenix firefighters have been infected by COVID-19 during the pandemic, putting a strain on the Fire Department's ability to staff its vehicles and on the city's overtime budget for firefighters.

"Is it a struggle? Is it a challenge? Yes," said Scott Walker, the department's executive assistant fire chief and second-in-command to Chief Kara Kalkbrenner.

But Walker said that no fire trucks have been sidelined by the pandemic.

"Every day, members are stepping up on overtime to staff fire trucks," he said. "We haven't had to take any of our engines, ladders or ambulances out of service as a result of COVID."

The infection rate among the 1,600 firefighters is the highest for any city employee group, according to data obtained by 12 News. 

At the same time, firefighters have been resistant to vaccinations. The vaccination rate for firefighters, according to Walker, is 38 to 40%. 

According to City of Phoenix data, based on vaccination cards that employees have submitted to qualify for a $75 reward, the estimated Fire Department vaccination rate is 33 percent.

Both rates lag the estimated citywide average of 53%. 

Last week, City Manager Jeff Barton required that all Phoenix employees get the COVID vaccine by Jan. 18, based on a mandate for federal contractors.

Phoenix's police and firefighter unions have joined Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich's federal lawsuit to block the mandate. The unions have warned that the mandate could prompt many firefighters and police officers to quit.

Firefighter case rate at 45 percent

12 News obtained data on COVID-19 cases compiled by the City of Phoenix since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

The data is based on self-reporting by employees, according to Vielka Atherton, spokeswoman for the city's Human Resources Department.

If the city were a private business, it would be Arizona's ninth-largest employer.

As of Wednesday, the data shows 28.5% of the 13,700 Phoenix employees have been infected by COVID-19.

But the infection rate among the city's firefighters is much higher, at 45% - 729 firefighters out of 1,600.

Only one firefighter has died as a result of COVID-19, and a "handful" haven't returned to duty, according to Capt. Rob McDade, a department spokesman.

The City of Phoenix data for the police department shows the overall infection rate among sworn officers and civilian employees is slightly below the city average, at 27.5%. The department didn't break out the rate among officers.

No different from health care workers

In many ways, firefighters are no different from front-line health care workers. 

Ninety percent of fire calls aren't to put out fires -  they're for health emergencies. 

Fire crews wear masks, eye protection and gloves as they enter homes where people might be infected by COVID, McDade said. But he said the protection "is not absolute."

Walker said that COVID risks are built into firefighters' work environment because of factors including time spent together in fire stations, having to move around to different fire stations, as firefighters cover for sick colleagues and working in close quarters on trucks and at scenes. 

Ballooning overtime costs are one of the prices Phoenix residents have to pay for firefighters sidelined by COVID.

"We have to backfill to make sure fire trucks are in service. There is a cost for those folks," Walker said.

Walker couldn't provide specific numbers on the higher spending on overtime.

Impact Extends Beyond Phoenix

COVID's impact on the Fire Department is being felt beyond Phoenix. It could hamper rescue efforts after major catastrophes.

The Fire Department is home to one of 28 Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces that work under the Federal Emergency Management Administration.

Over the last  20 years, the Phoenix-based task force has been called up to help at natural disasters, the Olympics and the 9/11 terrorist attack. 

But staffing the team has been a challenge because of COVID's impact on Phoenix firehouses, said Assistant Fire Chief Shelly Jamison, the federal representative for the Arizona task force.

"We might need them to staff a truck," Jamison said. "We have asked FEMA to allow us the grace to respond on a case-by-case basis."

Jamison said there were enough vaccinated team members to be deployed as a 60-member "Type 1" team. She said 143 of the 208 members on the team roster were fully vaccinated.

FEMA declined to comment on the status of the Phoenix team. 

The agency does require all task force volunteers to be fully vaccinated, under federal guidelines.

The vaccination status of all FEMA teams nationwide is being evaluated to gauge their readiness.

Vaccination Mandate Would be 'Beneficial'

Walker said both he and Chief Kalkbrenner believe the city's vaccine mandate is beneficial for the fire department.

"If we could have all of our members vaccinated..., that would reduce the risk to them, reduce the risk to the community," he said.

The fire department is already moving ahead with the mandate.

"We're making the vaccine available where they work," Walker said. "We will go to them at fire stations and the administration building and get them vaccinated." 

But Walker echoed comments last week by union leader Bryan Willingham, at a news conference announcing his members' opposition to the mandate, that firefighters' views must be respected.

"Firefighters are human beings and they're people, so they have their opinions as well," Walker said.

"We respect their individual opinions. We're trying to overcome that with education." 

City Plans Cash Incentives

Cash incentives for vaccinations are in the works. 

The City Council postponed a vote Wednesday on a $1,500 bonus for employees who are vaccinated by the Jan. 18 deadline.

The council plans to review the mandate at a meeting next Tuesday, Dec. 7. 

"Our legal team is reviewing options to present to council members at next week's meeting," said Dan Wilson, Phoenix's director of communications.

Wilson said the city was adhering to a federal mandate for government contractors, including cities. A federal mandate can't be overturned by the City Council, he said.

The vote on the vaccination incentive pay is now scheduled for the Dec. 15 council meeting. 

Attorney General Brnovich's lawsuit seeking to block the mandate hasn't been scheduled yet for a court hearing.

The City of Tucson reported last week that its employees were 99 percent compliant with its vaccination mandate.

COVID-19 Vaccine

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