Four Clark County firefighters have tested positive for COVID-19, Chief John Steinbeck said Friday, revealing that he is enlisting the aid of potentially several dozen retired county fire personnel in case more first responders get sick.
“If all of a sudden I start having many, many more of them that come down with the illness, and I have to ask them to stay home or isolate, I still have to provide service,” Steinbeck told the Review-Journal.
The four firefighters who contracted COVID-19 were each removed from work, he said. Two have since completed quarantine and returned completely symptom free.
Although Steinbeck said staffing is presently not an issue within the Clark County Fire Department — the largest in the state with 731 employees — he has moved to install a “Plan B.”
So far Steinbeck has secured commitments from about 35 retirees, a combination of ranks including chief, to be on call in the event they might be needed. He added that he would like to double that number of potential backfill in the next week or two.
The retirees would step in if there was to be a critical labor shortage and include support staff such as mechanics and logistics personnel: “Every position we need to keep the operation running.”
But employees on the front line, he added, were clearly the most at risk of exposure.
Things to consider
There are certain restrictions on re-employment within the Nevada Public Employees’ Retirement System that must be taken into account, including cooling-off periods and the number of hours retired personnel are allowed to work.
But the system does allow for exemptions amid a critical labor shortage, and Steinbeck said the county’s human resources department has worked out some issues while others are in progress.
And to call firefighters out of retirement requires reintegrating them into basic training and conditioning. Steinbeck said that retirees will be expected to be used wherever needed, even if they left the workforce as a captain or chief.
He underscored that retired personnel in finance or logistics departments would not be assuming roles as firefighters.
‘Leaning forward’ in a crisis
Steinbeck said he was not sure whether other fire departments in the Las Vegas Valley were taking similar precautions, although he noted he has informed others of his approach. Las Vegas city spokesman Jace Radke said Thursday the city is not considering doing so “at this time.”
The step by the county to secure possible reinforcements comes as it is also urging retired health care professionals to sign up as volunteers.
But for now, the county fire department presses forward without staffing shortages or a need to pivot to a Plan B.
“Our best hope, and my true gut is, that I won’t need to utilize these people,” Steinbeck said. “I don’t think it will come to that. It’s just us leaning forward in a crisis if we need it.”
Steinbeck encouraged the public to continue to call on the department for emergencies. But he also wanted the public to understand: Firefighters wearing personal protective equipment, such as gloves, masks and eye protection, is not a reason to be alarmed.
Instead it is a precautionary step to protect both the department employee and members of the public because sometimes infected people don’t show symptoms of the coronavirus.