As emergency COVID-19 calls skyrocket, first responders are feeling the impacts

As COVID-19 rapidly spreads across Arizona, first responders face more positive cases within their ranks.

When police and firefighters get sick, it affects their co-workers but city officials say they are forging ahead, while union officials are worried. 

In Phoenix, 86 of 1,732 Fire Department employees have tested positive for the virus. Most are not yet back at work. Two weeks ago, only 37 fire employees had tested positive. 

This jump in cases comes as firefighters handle a growing number of COVID-19 calls. The Phoenix department responded to 460 COVID-19-suspected calls in May. That leapt to 1,208 COVID-19-suspected calls in June.

The Phoenix Police Department has reached 148 positive cases, more than doubling from just 63 two weeks ago.

Combined, fire and police make up nearly half of all positive cases among city workers in Phoenix, according to a city memo. 

One day this week, Phoenix firefighters responded to 707 calls, 77 involving "potential COVID-19 incidents," according to a city memo. Of those 77 calls, they transported 33 patients to the hospital, meaning time spent in an ambulance in close quarters with infectious patients.  

“Firefighters across the state are getting exposed to not just positive patients — I'm talking active COVID-19 cases," said Brian Moore, director of workers' compensation benefits for the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona, the state's firefighter union. "Difficulty breathing, pneumonia, severe respiratory issues, where many of the respiratory droplets that are exhaled can easily be inhaled and impact firefighters, EMTs, paramedics."

How many have tested positive?

The virus' spread extends beyond Phoenix's public safety departments. 

In Tucson, 21 Police Department employees are off work because they've tested positive, had symptoms or had household members with symptoms. The department has had 118 quarantined employees return to work since the pandemic began. 

Of 30 firefighters in Tolleson, two are in quarantine. In Surprise, six of the city's 170 firefighters have tested positive. In Buckeye, it's as high as seven of the Fire Department's 95 employees. 

Gilbert's had 4% of Fire Department employees and 3% of police officers test positive for COVID-19. 

In Chandler, half of all the city's positive tests involve public safety employees. Of 26 first responders who have tested positive, 16 remain in quarantine. 

In Scottsdale, 24 of 308 Fire Department employees have tested positive or had a family member test positive for the virus, as COVID-19-related calls grew from 94 in May to 172 in June, according to the city.

Tempe has also seen recent spikes. The city has been testing Fire Department employees since March, but the department did not find a positive case until June 19. Since then, eight people have tested positive. 

Beyond employees who test positive, some cities are asking other employees to quarantine because household members have symptoms or were exposed to the virus, even though the employee may not be sick themselves. They must quarantine for at least 10 days before returning to the job.  

Most cities say they do not track employee hospitalizations.

According to Moore, most firefighter COVID-19 cases have so far been mild and few have been hospitalized. He is working with the firefighters who have been hospitalized due to on-the-job exposure to file for workers' compensation benefits. 

City officials say public safety departments have taken added precautions to keep stations and vehicles sanitized and crew members healthy. These include daily symptom screenings, sanitizing stations, strict disinfecting protocol, thorough cleaning of stations and vehicles and sometimes free diagnostic and antibody testing for first responders. 

FOR SUBSCRIBERS:  What it's like in an Arizona COVID-19 ICU

'When (people) get sick ... and can’t breathe, who do they call?'

The Phoenix firefighter union has said that increasing cases among firefighters are impacting the department's operation. 

"Valley firefighters are contracting COVID-19 at an alarming rate and it's to the point where our ability to provide adequate staffing is being impacted," the union wrote in a July 2 Facebook post. "It is vital we do all we can to reduce our firefighters and hospital workers exposure to COVID unnecessarily."

When police and firefighters get sick, it affects their co-workers but city officials say they are forging ahead, while union officials are worried.

Phoenix fire spokesman Kenny Overton said in response that staffing has been "unimpacted." 

"We are still operating at 100%, we are not shutting down stations, we are not shutting down trucks, we are responding to emergencies in the city of Phoenix every time we get them," he said. 

"Our members are our greatest asset and we're doing everything we can to protect our members while at the same time make emergency responses."

But more of those emergency responses involve people with COVID-19 symptoms. 

“When (people) get sick at home and can’t breathe, who do they call? The fire department. So we’re going out there and responding on these positive (COVID-19) folks,” Moore from the statewide union said.  

In June, 5% of Chandler's more than 2,000 Fire Department responses were COVID-19-related. 

In Buckeye, 2% of fire calls for service were COVID-related in May. That rose to 7% of calls in June and 11% of calls so far in July, according to the fire chief.

At the Peoria Fre Department, COVID-19 patients made up about 13% of all transfers to hospitals in May, and 24% of all transfers in June. 

Gilbert saw 98 calls for service for patients with COVID-19 symptoms in June. That number is at 75 less than a third of the way through July, per town data.

Because Mesa fire has encountered so many potential COVID-19 cases, all ill patients are treated as though they might have COVID-19. 

What happens when first responders get sick

City first responders who test positive for COVID-19 are off-duty for at least 10 days, sometimes 14, from the date of the test. If they're symptomatic, they often must go 72 hours with no symptoms and no fever medication. Some departments require negative tests; others require just an absence of symptoms. 

Many employees choose to self-isolate at home, but unions and cities in many cases offer free hotel rooms if that's more convenient for an employee.

Cities have implemented emergency paid sick leave plans so that employees get paid time off to recover from COVID-19 in addition to their annual days off. Most cities provide 80 hours of COVID-19 sick pay to cover quarantine time. 

Santiago Rodriguez, Goodyear's police chief, acknowledged the nature of the jobs make it hard to avoid the risks. 

Nature of job puts first responders at risk

Rodriguez said the Goodyear Police Department tries to limit the amount of time officers spend within six feet of people.

"However, due to the emergency nature of the job, this practice is not always possible," he said. 

Mesa police ask non-emergency callers to meet police outside their homes where there is more air circulation and physical distancing is easier. 

"Our officers are making contact with hundreds of people every day," Mesa police spokesman Ed Wessing said. "We are doing our best to mitigate ... exposure to COVID for our officers and the members of the public that we come in contact with." 

Public safety officials are asking for the community's help to make sure firefighters, police officers and the general public stay safe.

City officials want the public to know that first responders are responding to emergency calls, just with added precautions — and that residents can help make things safer. 

When calling 911, fire or police dispatchers may ask if the caller has a fever or symptoms or if anyone in the home has symptoms or has tested positive for COVID-19 so that officers are prepared with personal protective equipment. 

Most fire departments meet people outside their homes when possible, and encourage everyone to wear a mask. If first responders must go inside a house, maybe one or two will go instead of the entire crew, city officials say. 

The Phoenix fire union has urged people not to call 911 if they just have mild symptoms or want to be tested. That exposes firefighters unnecessarily. Instead, people should first call their physician and only call 911 if they have severe symptoms, the union urged.

Overton from the Phoenix Fire Department had a similar response. 

"Many cases of COVID-19 infection are mild and do not require hospitalization," Overton said. "We encourage residents to contact their primary physician or call 211 for information if experiencing mild to moderate symptoms. If your condition worsens and you need to call 911, please be sure to relay any symptoms consistent with COVID-19 infection to the 911 dispatcher."

Other Valley fire departments asked for similar protocol when calling 911.  

Despite cautions for infection- control, Buckeye Fire Chief Bob Costello encouraged people not to shy away from calling 911 if they need help. 

"We are prepared to handle their emergency and we do not want them not to call if needed," he said. "We are concerned that people are not seeking help for serious medical issues." 

Reporters Jessica Boehm, Jen Fifield, Lorraine Longhi and Paulina Pineda contributed to this article. 

Reach the reporter at or at 602-444-4282. Follow her on Twitter@alisteinbach.

Support local journalism. Subscribe to today.