Covid-19: critical shortage of fire service staff, temporary closure of stations
The latest outbreak of Covid-19 has worsened staff shortages in the Bermuda Fire and Rescue Service and caused slower emergency response times and temporary station closures.
A spokesman for the Bermuda Fire Service Association said that 35 firefighters – more than half of the service’s personnel – had been unable to work because they had tested positive or had close contact with someone who had.
Some firefighters were expected to return to work in the next few days, but the shortages forced Clearwater Fire Station to shut last Saturday and Port Royal Station to close last Sunday.
An FSA spokesman said: “We currently operate at the bare minimum staffing levels just to man the fire trucks, and any absence — in this case due to Covid-19 — forces our management team to make critical decisions which may not bode well for the public.
“What was a maximum of 15 minutes’ response time on average could now be 30 minutes or more in some instances.
“This impact on response times could be the difference between life and death, or saving a burning structure or not.”
The spokesman added that they had seen ambulance response times in the East End double from 20 to 40 minutes when the Clearwater station was unable to run an ambulance because of understaffing.
He said: “That long of a wait can dramatically and, in some cases, fatally affect patient outcomes. It is gambling with people’s lives.”
The fire service operates an ambulance service in the East End, but it was revealed last month that the Clearwater station often did not have enough staff to operate its ambulance and a fire truck.
The FSA said the spread of the Omicron variant had made the situation even worse, with stations left without enough firefighters to run either.
Nakia Pearman, of the FSA, said: “What many people will not be able to appreciate is we are responsible for more than just fires.
“We are firefighters but we are also EMTs. We are responsible for all hazardous material incidents, we are responsible for all road traffic accidents, we are responsible for anything to do with search and rescue.
“We need to kill the narrative of ‘there aren’t that many fires’ because we always have an emergency to respond to.”
Mr Pearman added that any time a station was forced to close, the section of the island it covered was in a “dire position”.
He said: “When time comes into play and people have to wait longer for a response to a burning building or a medical issue or a road traffic issue, you can see how things can quickly compound and make things more difficult than they could be if we had enough manpower.”
Mr Pearman added: “We are not complaining about something that benefits us in some superficial way. We are asking for things that help us ensure we can fulfil our service requirements to the public.
“If we are depleted in manpower and equipment, that puts the public at greater risk because there are no other bodies that can provide the services we provide.”
He said that the Government had been aware of the problems for years but they had still to be tackled.
Mr Pearman added: “We keep hearing the reasoning that financial constraints make it difficult to facilitate giving us extra manpower or extra equipment.
“However, these issues have been known to Government for at least five years and it has been pushed further down the road.”
The association spokesman said that the lack of firefighters has had a knock-on effect on King Edward VII Memorial Hospital, which was already under pressure because of the pandemic.
He added: “It’s worth noting that the EMTs of the fire service continue to respond to medical emergencies in the eastern region in the fire truck which is located at the Clearwater station.
“However, when their ambulance is out of service they are unable to transport patients to advanced medical care.”
The Bermuda Hospitals Board has cut back on visits in the acute care and long-term-care units in response to the latest surge in Covid-19 cases.
A spokeswoman said that despite the rising number of cases linked to the Omicron variant, hospitalisations remain low.
She said: “Two of our long-term-care units have temporarily closed to visitation.
“One unit is on enhanced precautions following a community-acquired positive staff case, and a different unit has been impacted by a small number — three — of patient positives.
“They were detected from our regular surveillance testing of our long-term-care population.”
The spokeswoman added that staff are required to wear personal protective equipment at all times in the long-term-care units and the temporary halt to visits would reduce the likelihood of spread.
She said: “People who are still able to visit loved ones can help protect themselves and those they are visiting by always wearing their masks, practise physical distancing, washing hands and use public, not patient bathrooms.”
The spokesman said the FSA and the fire service had worked hard to come up with a solution but none had been found.
He added: “We need at least eight additional staff to get us to safe levels in the short term and will lose 17 of our members to retirement over the next five years, which emphasises even more a need to hire and continue to hire over the years to come.
“While other entities have also said they are being affected by Covid-19 among their staff, they have continued to meet demand, while we most certainly have not.
“It is imperative that we get the manpower we need to restore adequate coverage to the island beyond Covid-19, and especially to achieve full crew strength in order to facilitate the ambulance service once again.
“Operating with these deficiencies is asking for something bad to happen.”
The Ministry of National Security did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
But David Burt, the Premier, admitted that the spread of Omicron could cause disruption of public services.
Michael Dunkley, the shadow national security minister, said the Government must outline what it was going to do to tackle the manpower shortage in the fire service.
He added: “The Government was warned at Budget time about the consequences of not staffing the BFRS and other critical safety departments.
“This glaring deficiency, coupled with the impact of the Omicron variant on staffing levels, is now causing concerns for public safety.”
Police said last week that 18 officers were off duty because of Covid-19 but service levels had not been affected.
The Bermuda Hospitals Board said last Tuesday it had 25 staff off work because of the latest outbreak.
Renee Ming, the national security minister, did not respond to repeated questions over several days about firefighters’ fears.