A quick and cooperative approach between St. John’s, NL Local 1075 and the employer prevented a serious shortfall of public safety resources in the city after a frontline fire fighter tested positive recently for the highly-contagious UK-variant of COVID-19 on February 17 following an off-duty exposure, immediately forcing 31 fire fighters with whom he’d been on shift at two of the city’s fire stations or were identified through contact tracing to be sent home in isolation. They joined another 20 St. John’s fire fighters who were already in isolation due to a community outbreak, resulting in 30 per cent of the city’s 176 suppression fire fighters who staff eight stations across the city being unavailable for duty.
But working together, Local 1075 and the city implemented a seamless plan to keep fire fighters safe while ensuring public safety levels were maintained, says Local 1075 President Craig Smith. While both affected fire stations were closed temporarily to be disinfected, both reopened within hours, fully backfilled with staff called in on overtime.
Protocols for testing and contact tracing in the department were an important element of the response, Smith says. “We erred on the side of caution; we had conversations with the department and anyone who felt they were exposed got tested, for their peace of mind.”
Importantly, all St. John’s fire fighters required to isolate were granted two weeks isolation leave in accordance with provincial directives, so it doesn’t affect their sick leave or vacation leave balances.
Three of the city’s 12 9-1-1 dispatchers were also in isolation at the same time, and Local 1075 negotiated an arrangement to keep three other dispatchers in individual isolation as a contingency to ensure enough remain available for duty.
Smith credits the cooperation that facilitated such a rapid and effective response to the situation to the local’s emphasis on political action and relationship building with the city over the last few years – for example the FIRE OPS 101 event held in 2018.
“This was a case of 100% mutual cooperation between the city, the department and the union,” he says. “We’ve established a professional reputation with the city, basically to affirm that we’re the experts in our field, and we’ll work with you, not against you. They trust us, they recognize us as professionals who are easy to communicate with, and because of that we were able to expedite all those logistics.”
Smith says the joint response to the member’s COVID-19 infection was a model that other unions and fire departments could follow, adding Local 1075 is glad to share its experience with other locals facing the same situation.
The infected fire fighter, the city’s first since the pandemic began, is currently asymptomatic and resting comfortably Smith says, and local and peer support members are in constant contact with him.
Essential workers in Newfoundland and Labrador are included in Phase 2 for vaccinations, but specific details and timelines have not yet been released.
Provincial Premier Andrew Furey reached out to Smith February 19 to discuss vaccinations and the province has committed to updating Local 1075 on its vaccination plans on a weekly basis.