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The Fire Department accelerated graduation for a class of 309 probationary firefighters as dozens of New York’s Bravest remain mired in coronavirus quarantine, officials told THE CITY Wednesday.
The department also has imposed a strict 24-hour work schedule that groups cohorts of employees and suspends the practice of letting firefighters pick up shifts at other houses — moves aimed at mitigating the spread of the virus.
The changes come as the FDNY has confirmed three cases of COVID-19 among its ranks of both firefighters and emergency medical technicians — and as the number of quarantined members has climbed to “100-plus,” according to Jim Long, a Fire Department spokesperson.
As of March 15, 60 firefighters, 47 Emergency Medical Services workers and four non-uniform employees were home-quarantined, according to an Incident Management Team document obtained by THE CITY.
‘Use Social Distancing’
“The goal is to isolate each fire house and have them basically operate independent of each other to minimize the members’ interactions,” said James “Jake” Lemonda, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers’ Association.
“So at the change of tour, the new shift comes in, the old shift leaves and there’s as little interaction as possible to limit exposure,” he added. “Normally, we’d sit around the kitchen at the change of tours and maybe talk about a fire or whatever. Not now.”
The modified schedule assigns firefighters into four groups — A, B, C or D. Each group works a shift from 9 a.m. to the following 9 a.m shift. After three days off, the group returns to work with the exact same crew again. The practice of trading shifts, called working “mutuals,” has been suspended.
“All members are advised to use social distancing while in quarters during their tours of duty, to the best extent possible,” the department warned firefighters. “This includes during meal periods and while in various rooms throughout the firehouses and EMS stations.”
EMTs have also had their platoon schedules changed so that they always work with the same partner.
‘A Pretty Big Event’
“This is a pretty big event we’ve got in front of us, so the schedule will remain for the foreseeable future,” said Long, who confirmed the staffing moves. “If we keep our members healthy and safe, they can keep going to work to keep everyone healthy and safe.”
Lemonda said the decision was made in consultation with the Fire Department’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Prezant and Deputy Chief Medical Officer Karen Hurwitz. He stressed it would not impact the department’s response, just the workforce scheduling.
“This was the best operational decision based on the latest scientific and medical data available,” Lemonda said. “The department and the chief medical officers are looking at data not just daily, but hourly.”
On Monday, the department also began inspections of each Certified First Responder-Defibrillator (CFR-D) Battalion Depot and EMS Depot to conduct an inventory of supplies needed in the coronavirus fight.
“Some 911-receiving hospital emergency rooms have implemented a policy, internally, that every person entering their facilities must don a surgical mask, including EMS personnel,” an FDNY Incident Management Team update said. “At no time shall FDNY personnel lower PPE [personal protective equipment] levels — going from an already donned N95 mask to a hospital surgical mask.”
Experts say the N95 mask is the most effective form of personal protection from airborne viruses since it is tight-fitting to the face and filters even small droplets.
‘Clean Out Your Lockers’
Coronavirus concerns prompted the department to graduate a class of 309 probationary firefighters, known as “probies,” from the FDNY Training Academy on Randall’s Island a week and a half early. The probies have been deployed to firehouses throughout the city.
“We got the word on Friday,” said one probie, who could not give his name because he had not been authorized to speak to the press. “They basically told us, “Go upstairs and clean out your lockers’.”
Long noted the decision was made “given the current situation and its impact on our members.”
“We accelerated their departure, but they got all the necessary training and certifications,” Long said. “There may be some components of the training that will be revisited at a later date.”
The probie stressed, however, that he and his classmates had covered all the material they were supposed to learn.
“We’re missing a blood drive, the St. Patrick’s Day parade, a visit to the 9/11 museum and a lecture or something,” he said. “We’re also missing Family Day, where basically you get to show off what you learned and squirt hoses and stuff, and then graduation.”
He understands he won’t be socializing much at work with the new rules in place.
“Everybody’s nervous, but it is what it is,” he said. “Of course I’m going to be exposed, but I have a job to do. I have to fulfill those duties.”
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