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Omaha firefighters sound the alarm on COVID-19 in the department

Updated: Sep 11, 2020

During the first week of May, Omaha firefighters voluntarily participated in a COVID-19 research project.  Some firefighters were tested for antibodies to see if they were previously exposed to COVID-19.  According to one Omaha Firefighter, at least 22 tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies.   

Multiple Omaha firefighters, speaking on condition of anonymity, voiced their frustration that no one was keeping them informed, including command staff in the department.

"We were never told how many others had COVID-19.  We didn’t know how many other guys were sick,” said the first Omaha firefighter.  “We didn’t even get notified about the press release regarding Station 31 before it was sent out.” 

A second firefighter said it has been weeks since they received any sort of direct communication from department leadership. However, one firefighter added that their paramedic shift supervisor would try to check in and see how their crews were doing throughout the pandemic. 

“We were just told to wear our PPE, read our SOP’s," the second firefighter said.  The same firefighter added that one shift from Station 31 called out sick in a protest after they were upset that they were not notified right away regarding the COVID-19 outbreak in their station.

A third firefighter said that firefighters in Station 31 had several exposures which were unnecessary due to management telling firefighters to work while awaiting test results.  Those results ended up coming back positive the third firefighter added.

“We have families at home and we don’t even know if we are truly getting exposed or not,'' the second firefighter said.  The same firefighter explained that they would get notified over 15 days later that the patient they transported weeks prior with possible COVID-19 either tested positive or negative.

"They don’t give us any information," a fourth firefighter said bluntly.  "Some guys went out and got tested on their own and told their coworkers that they were positive.  A lot of times, that's how the word spread.  Amongst ourselves.”

The fourth firefighter expressed that the "Omaha Fire Department is a rudderless ship."

As of June 15th, the Omaha Fire Department publicly said that they would offer personnel assigned to Station 31 COVID-19 testing after eight firefighters tested positive for the virus.  

"With not knowing the long term effects of this, we should have been testing more and tracking better," the first firefighter said.  “There was no protocol for paperwork, such as contamination forms.  We went on several runs with absolutely no follow up regarding if the patient was positive or not.” 

Several firefighters highlighted how little communication there was regarding nursing home breakouts. 

“We were on our own and we were told to call the individual nursing homes ourselves.  Some of them we never heard back from, but someone higher up should have been handling that," the first firefighter said.  "How is it we are notified that roads are being shut down for construction but not if a nursing home has an outbreak?” 

The Omaha Fire Department has suspended hospital of choice due to COVID-19.  Some shifts would cancel an engine or truck responding to a medical call with a suspected COVID-19 case to limit the number of people the patient had contact with. 

“You would think management would have made it clear but everyone kinda did what they thought was best,” the first firefighter added.  The firefighter expressed that it was every shift for themselves.

It wasn’t until June 18th that the Omaha Fire Department issued a general order requiring N-95 masks on all medical runs.  The order further requested that employees should wear surgical or cloth masks when out in the community and they must wear one while inside the fire station when more than one person is in the room regardless of social distancing. 

On June 18th, Station 43 had a reported positive COVID-19 case according to a department source who added that results were sent through email. 

Station 43 was reported to have been taken out of service for several hours as the station went through a deep cleaning before being opened again.  Firefighters say no official communication was sent about Station 43s positive case within the department. 

The Omaha Fire Department has issued one press release regarding the positive COVID-19 cases at Station 31.  The department has not issued any other press releases about positive cases at other stations across the city.

A fifth Omaha Firefighter added that during the 2019 floods, a taskforce was created that was specific to dealing with flood issues.  No such taskforce was created for the pandemic the firefighter said.

The fifth firefighter added that they were told by a battalion chief that "we don't need to transport everybody because medics need to avoid the hospitals to reduce exposure." 

“We just wanted better communication from command staff regarding this pandemic," one firefighter said.  "We still don’t know the long term effects of this."

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