Things are back to normal at the Lemay Fire Protection District this week after all of its 24 firefighters had to quarantine after one tested positive for COVID-19 Aug. 4. The one-firehouse fire district was left without any staff, and calls had to be taken over by the Mehlville and Affton fire districts for several days.
When the official 14-day quarantine ended Monday, nearly all the firefighters were back on the job after testing negative, including the firefighter who originally tested positive, said Lemay Fire Chief Dan Bertelsmeier, who was also on quarantine after coming into contact with that firefighter. The chief declined to provide any other information about the firefighter’s health condition or the extent of the illness due to federal health privacy laws.
After the firefighter tested positive on Aug. 4, all 28 employees, including 24 firefighters, in Lemay had to quarantine because the district only has one firehouse, at 1201 Telegraph Road. That left the district without any firefighters to respond to calls, but other area districts stepped in to take calls in Lemay.
“Everybody was exposed to him on every crew within a certain amount of days,” Bertelsmeier said of the firefighter who had COVID-19. “We only have 24 employees, and they were all exposed at one time to this individual. We’re just kind of here in our little world.”
After consulting with the county Department of Public Health, “they advised us it would be best to shut down” due to the extent of the exposure, the chief said.
Tests of every firefighter and all employees — including the chief, three deputy chiefs and one administrative assistant — showed that no one else contracted the coronavirus, the chief said.
Lemay’s lack of firefighters set in motion a cooperative plan that had been agreed to in March by fire districts across St. Louis County: If smaller fire districts were left without any employees, other districts would come into that smaller district’s firehouse and respond to calls.
“We knew sooner or later somebody was going to get hit with it and it would close the whole firehouse,” Bertelsmeier said. “We were just the unlucky ones that caught everybody off guard.”
As far as he knows, Lemay is the first fire district in the county to be completely shut down by coronavirus. Other fire departments have had positive cases and had to quarantine some firefighters or bring in extra assistance, but no district so far had seen all its firefighters quarantined.
For the first two days in which there were no Lemay firefighters at all, the Mehlville and Affton fire districts stationed crews at Lemay to respond to all calls and “pretty much covered us 24/7 when we needed it,” said Bertelsmeier. Other districts, including Fenton, Valley Park, Eureka and West County, staffed ambulances for Lemay 12 hours a day, provided equipment or otherwise helped out. Outside the pandemic, Lemay offers mutual aid to those districts on a regular basis, as they all do in return.
The chief said he wanted to thank the other districts who came in during Lemay’s time of need.
“The Lemay community can count on that the neighboring districts are always going to be able to offer a lending hand in a time like this,” he said. “We’re all in it together.”
That was echoed by Mehlville Fire Chief Brian Hendricks, who said all the South County fire districts collaborate with each other to provide the best possible service.
“I look at the county (departments) as the ‘South County Fire Department,’ and we have a collaborative agreement among all the fire chiefs in South St. Louis County to help each other in their time of need,” Hendricks said. “I know that any of the South County fire chiefs, if we needed something, they’d be there. We have a very good working relationship. We have plans in place that if there’s an issue in Crestwood, If there’s an issue in Affton, we know how to address it. It was great to see us all come together, and also agencies outside of South St. Louis County that were willing to step up and send equipment to Lemay to make sure that their citizens have the services that they needed. I know that will continue until we get on the other side of this.”
Some of Lemay’s quarantined firefighters began receiving negative results as soon as two days after the quarantine started, so they were able to start slowly trickling back on the job as they tested negative, with backup from the other fire districts. On advice from county health officials, the firefighters had to wait five days between the last time they had contact with the firefighter with COVID-19 and when they took the test to see if they had contracted the virus.
The firefighter’s crew was sent home the same day the test result came back, and every member of that particular crew had to wait five days to get tested and then had their results back in 24 hours.
It’s not known whether the firefighter contracted COVID-19 on the job or through community spread outside the firehouse, but under legislation signed by Gov. Mike Parson, every first responder who tests positive for the virus is assumed to have contracted it on the job and is eligible for workers’ compensation.
So far the policy for firefighters has been to test them for COVID-19 only if they’re showing symptoms. But Lemay takes the temperatures of every firefighter twice a day, documenting the results. If anyone has symptoms, they are tested right away and should get results in 24 to 36 hours. The testing is conducted by the Mehlville Fire Protection District at the No. 7 Firehouse.
“I wish we could get tested every day like baseball players,” Bertelsmeier said.
Lemay Fire has been cleaning during the entire pandemic and has protocols in place to prevent the spread of the virus, following the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and the county health department. Crestwood-based Woodard Restoration and ServPro have come in and sprayed down equipment, and ServPro came in the same day as the positive case to disinfect the entire firehouse and all its equipment.
Lemay firefighters have been donning full personal protective equipment, or PPE, on every call even before the positive case on the crew. They had a well-stocked supply of PPE acquired through St. Louis County even before the all-crew quarantine.
“There’s just an assumption that every call” is a COVID case, Bertelsmeier said. “Even if the person doesn’t have COVID symptoms on EMS, you’ve still got to assume that it’s out there.”
Crew changes are handled one at a time, with one crew leaving completely before the next crew comes in. The departing crew will clean everything up inside and disinfect the firehouse and the equipment while the other waits outside.
Despite a rise in cases in every South County ZIP code in recent weeks that doubles or triples the cases seen in every other St. Louis County ZIP code, the Lemay chief said the fire district has not noticed an upward tick in calls any more than it has been dealing with for months. Known COVID-19 calls are flagged, but the crews treat every call like someone could be there with the virus.