A crew from the York County Department of Fire and Life Safety was recently spotted not wearing facemasks or social distancing in public while responding to an emergency.
Two photos sent to WYDaily show several firefighters were not social distancing or wearing masks when they responded to a suspected drunk driving incident on June 4 near Yorktown Village Apartments.
A few weeks later, the fire department announced 11 of its staff members tested positive for the coronavirus.
WYDaily asked Fire Chief Stephen “Steve” Kopczynski about the department’s current policies with regards to wearing a mask and social distancing.
WYDaily had also asked Kopcynski how the staff members can social distance during a call, why the staff members were not social distancing or wearing masks in the photos, the chief’s thoughts on the governor’s indoor mask mandate, how many staff members finished quarantined and returned to work and if the chief himself had tested positive for the virus.
“Our department has a robust process to minimize COVID spread and exposure,” he wrote in an email Wednesday. “This also includes a process where facilities are sanitized routinely as well as our apparatus when necessary.”
He said employees are “encouraged” to take their temperature before work, at work and during their shift. As for mask use and social distancing, Kopczynski wrote the department expects employees to wear masks when they can’t social distance, including when they interact with the public. However, there are exceptions. The staff members do not have to wear a mask at their private work space.
“If staff is in a private work space (i.e. assigned individual office) they are not expected to wear a mask, however, if they go to another office, conference room etc. to meet with others they are expected to wear masks.”
Kopczynski said there have been no new positive cases and 22 staff members are currently quarantined with four of them off this week and the department has tested 120 staff members in total with six test results still pending.
Kopczynski was in meetings Wednesday and not available for further comment.
Deputy Fire Chief Christopher Sadler said staff is expected to wear mask even when they are in vehicles. In fact, it’s a requirement.
“The nature of our business…there are going to be situations where masks may fall off, and instead of grabbing that masks and stopping that person from choking, it’s going to be stop that person from choking,” Sadler said. “There may be incidences where they are caught without their mask on. And you know, we’re all human, too.”
He said with adrenaline, the staff might forget to put on a mask but “it is what it is but our practice is we wear masks.”
How can staff members socially distance during a call? They can’t.
“You can only do what you can do,” he said. “You’re not going to socially distance when you’re caring for somebody.”
But if the staff members are responding to a call dealing with suspected or positive COVID-19 patients, they wear personal protective equipment which includes masks and gloves.
“We do continue to wear masks in these occasions and work to ensure that we use sanitizer and hand washing prior to and following an incident call,” the chief wrote in a later email. “Of course, we are using sanitizers and hand washing in our stations throughout the work shift.”
Staff members are not required to wear masks inside the station except if they are within six feet of one another.
Staff members also can’t eat meals together at the dinner table, can’t congregate in offices, and some fire stations have had some furniture removed.
The chief said staff tries to social distance “whenever possible.”
“Our Department is committed to the protection of our citizens and personnel from any injury or illness,” he wrote in an email. “Therefore, we are taking the appropriate measures based on guidance provided to us by the Commonwealth and the various subject matter experts such as the Virginia Department of Health to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus.”
Sadler said 120 out of 148 staff members have been tested for the coronavirus. The department does not have the ability to get everyone tested but plans to do so next week.
“We have to have a reason to send them to go get tested,” he said.
While staff members can get tested at urgent care centers, the results could take longer and the department would like to do expedited testing instead.
But what about the photos that show staff members not social distancing or wearing masks?
Sadler said they would have to address that in the department and he would look into the incident.
“We were probably not at the point we were wearing masks on call yet,” he said, adding he was not sure when the policy went into effect. “I don’t have an actual date of when we started doing that.”
He said 53 members have been quarantined, 29 have returned to work and 22 are still in quarantine. Neither Sadler or the chief have tested positive for the virus.
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