Twenty-five Asheville Fire Department firefighters are currently in quarantine after either testing positive for COVID-19 or being deemed a close contact to someone who tested positive for the virus, according to Asheville Fire Chief Scott Burnette.
Seventeen of them have tested positive for COVID-19, while the other eight are quarantining.
“One (positive test) is one too many,” Chief Burnette said. “… We are seeing nationally and at a state level an unbelievable increase in COVID cases. So, for us to also have an increase, unfortunately is not surprising.”
Scott Mullins, president of the Asheville Fire Fighters Association, agreed with Burnette.
“I’m not surprised that there are that many firefighters who have tested positive for COVID-19 despite taking every precaution,” Burnette said. “We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”
AFD held a driver operator certification Oct. 26 at the Buncombe County Emergency Services Training Center in Woodfin. Twenty-four firefighters participated in the training – nine of which have tested positive for COVID-19. Seven others also are in quarantine for being a close contact.
The certification is designed to train firefighters on driving and operating the fire truck, according to Burnette. Operating the truck includes pumping and operating the aerial. Burnette wouldn’t say whether the class was the source for the outbreak within the department.
“Buncombe County Public Health reviews all of the COVID-19 positive data within Buncombe County and they make those determinations in terms of sources and things like that,” Burnette said.
“There has been an increase in cases all over North Carolina and our people (firefighters) are exposed more,” Mullins said. “It’s hard to say where our firefighters picked it up from because we respond to COVID calls every day.”
Despite the outbreak, Burnette said firefighters in the training didn’t respond to any service calls.
“None of the firefighters who were in that training, were on trucks answering calls,” Burnette said. “The class hadn’t been completed yet and when you’re in that training you are not assigned to a truck. You’re not doing both.”
Since the pandemic began in mid-March, AFD has had 29 of its 276 firefighters to test positive for COVID-19, including 17 since Nov. 1.
Despite the increase in positive tests and the number of firefighters in quarantine, the minimum of four firefighters per truck required to answer a call is being met, according to Burnette.
“We’re blessed here in Asheville to have the number of firefighters that we do,” Burnette said. “Although 17 firefighters who are positive right now is 17 too many, we have 276 total firefighters. We need a minimum of 69 on duty every day, so we have been able to continue to meet that minimum requirement.”
Six of the AFD’s 12 fire stations – Stations 3, 5, 6, 8, 9 and 10 – have had at least one firefighter test positive with COVID-19. Unlike in June when Stations 3 and 6 were closed for several hours for cleaning, none of the fire stations will be closed for cleaning purposes, Burnette said.
“Our stations are cleaned multiple times a day,” Burnette said. “Back in June when we had our first two positive cases, we did close those stations for a couple of hours so they could be cleaned. We have learned and followed CDC guidance since then, so the cleaning we are doing multiple times a day is the best practice to make sure our firefighters are safe working there. So, fortunately we don’t have to close any stations.”