Local fire departments understaffed as coronavirus takes toll

Dec 18, 2020

Firefighters across San Luis Obispo County are getting infected with COVID-19, or have been ordered to stay home in quarantine due to possible exposure. Fire officials are urging extra vigilance to ensure departments can respond to emergencies. 

Local fire chiefs are asking the public to “help us, help you," as COVID-19 is spreading, impacting staffing at multiple fire departments throughout the Central Coast. 

“This is about every fire department in our county, everyone's local fire department is struggling with this right now,” said Five Cities Fire Authority Chief Steve Lieberman.

Lieberman said at one point at his department, he had five people on quarantine orders and three employees who tested positive for COVID-19. 

“For a small department that runs three fire stations, that’s 35% of our response capacity gone," Lieberman said. "And that impacts our ability to provide the great level of care we are used to.”

Lieberman said his first responders are taking every precaution they can, and that the people they serve need to as well.

Unless unable, they ask everyone who needs service to wear a mask.

“We also ask, unless someone is seriously ill, to maybe come outside their house," Lieberman said. "And we'll drag a chair from their living room to treat the patient outside to be in open air.”

In the spring, the Santa Barbara County Fire Department saw an outbreak of COVID-19, with 20 confirmed cases and 40 employees in quarantine at one time.

Since then, Chief Mike Eliason said they’ve stepped up protocols to ensure another outbreak doesn’t happen.

“[Firefighters] are wearing masks on the engines, even just driving to and from calls," Eliason said. "They are wearing masks in the station. They are trying to keep as separate as possible, there’s no longer visitors or tours right now.”

Eliason warns that even if ICU numbers seem low, one emergency can change that. 

“If you have two cars involved in an accident, and have six people sent to the hospital, now your ICU beds are going down,” Eliason said.

Fire chiefs are also asking residents not to travel for the holidays, as cases continue to rise.