Savage Fire Department

The Savage Fire Department Station 61 on O’Connell Road.

Prior Lake Fire Chief Rick Steinhaus said everything had been going very well — until Sunday.

That's when the first COVID-19 case was confirmed within the department's ranks.

The stations were shut down and sanitized, trainings were suspended, meetings were canceled and more than half of Station 2’s firefighters were sent home to quarantine.

“I’ve been running around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to manage this,” Steinhaus, the department’s only full-time employee, said Wednesday.

He said there's a contingency plan in place should he become unable to work himself, but it brings little peace of mind.

"It's not a secret we're already short," he said of the department's staffing model, which employs 44 paid-on-call volunteer firefighters.

The Savage Fire Department — for decades facing the same challenges of a volunteer paid-on-call staffing model — switched over to duty crew model once the pandemic hit to ensure available responders.

The department is set to transition to a professional model with full-time fire station staffing next year.

No Savage firefighters are currently in quarantine, Savage Fire Chief Andrew Slama said in an email to the Savage Pacer this week, but quarantines have stressed the department's already-slim staffing levels at times throughout the pandemic.

Burnsville Fire Chief BJ Jungmann, who leads the city's full-time crew of first responders operating both fire and ambulance service, said asymptomatic spread of COVID-19 is particularly concerning.

"We've taken the highest level of protection on every call just because we don't know," he said in an interview this week.

On calls unrelated to COVID-19, such as car crashes or an unrelated medical emergency, Jungmann said firefighters have encountered situations where they’ve later been notified that someone on-scene had tested positive.

Jungmann said the department is taking all steps available to protect against transmission, but some firefighters have become infected.

"It's tough to pin-point whether it's from work or off-duty," he said.

The number of firefighters needing to self-quarantine ebbs and flows, Jungmann added, but it's been manageable so far by backfilling positions or having other firefighters pick up overtime shifts.

Most commonly, difficulty breathing is the reason someone with COVID-19 dials 911, according to Jungmann and Slama.

In Savage, Allina Health Emergency Medical Services responds to the city's COVID-19 related calls. The fire department only responds when the medical is considered critical, or assistance is needed to lift or move the patient.

And although these calls do arise for firefighters in Savage, no staff exposures to COVID-19 have been related to emergency responses, according to Slama.

"The entire public safety system is making every effort to limit contacts for patients and responders," he wrote.

"Everyone is living in this 24/7," Jungmann said, adding first responders worry about bringing the virus home to their family on top of the stress of the day-to-day job. "It's a 24/7 strain."

“For me, bringing this home would be deadly, to be frank,” Savage Fire Capt. John Burrow said.

Burrow’s wife lives with chronic lung disease. When the pandemic hit, the uncertainty led Burrow to pick-up an administrative role within the department.

He later decided, with the support of his wife, to once again respond to calls in the community.

“I know that as much as my family needs help, that there’s other people in the community that need help, and to turn my back on the department or the community is not something I’d do lightheartedly,” he said.

At the scene of emergencies, Burrow said he does everything in his power to keep his distance from COVID-19 positive patients. The department’s other members understand his situation and know he’s trying to limit his exposures to protect his wife and daughter, he said.

Last month, The U.S. Fire Administration reported 18 confirmed on-duty firefighter deaths attributed to COVID-19, making it the leading cause of deaths so far this year.

All things considered, local fire officials say operations are holding up fairly well despite the constant strain the pandemic wages on both a firefighter's work and personal life.

Heading into winter, the departments don't report having any personal protective equipment shortages, but the uncertainty looms.

Slama said Savage firefighters have been fortunate to be able to use N95 masks and hazmat suits, which the department kept stocked before the pandemic. However, the entire county faces a new understanding of how quickly protective equipment can be depleted.

Steinhaus said he's hopeful recent setbacks will pass over their department quickly.

"I don’t want the citizens to worry," he said, adding they'll continue responding when they're called — and, they'll ask for help from other departments when they need it.