With nearly 200 firefighters out because of COVID-19 or other injuries, Montgomery County’s fire chief is bringing in recruits to fill shifts and making other changes in service.

Trucks at two stations will not be staffed when the Fire and Rescue Service is busy, depending on who is available, the chief said. Medics who were in training will now be sent out on calls. 

Scott Goldstein, fire chief of the Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service, in an email to the department, wrote that “110 career and 23 volunteer personnel are unable to report to work [because of COVID-19], in addition to approximately 75 MCFRS staff who are unable to report to work due to other occupational health issues or injuries.”

That equates to roughly 9 percent of the staff, Goldstein said. 

In an interview Tuesday, Goldstein said he will bring in 25 recruits, who graduated from the fire academy on Dec. 17, to help staff departments across the county.

Recruits typically would spend some shifts in training first, but because of the uptick in COVID-19 cases, they’re needed as soon as possible to respond to calls, Goldstein said.

According to Goldstein’s email, the Fire and Rescue Service sometimes will not staff the aerial tower fire truck out of the Clarksburg Fire Station or the rescue squad fire truck at the Laytonsville Fire Station. 

Goldstein said these units will not be staffed when a firefighter needs to work involuntary overtime when they cannot be relieved, due to staffing shortages or other problems. 

From Monday to Friday, the Fire and Rescue Service needs to fill 308 positions countywide, to meet demand and state law, Goldstein said.

The trucks were picked from Clarksburg and Laytonsville because they typically have fewer calls and those calls can sometimes be handled by other nearby stations. 

According to a county news release, the Fire and Rescue Service has also reactivated an EMS “disposition officer,” an EMS position to guide which patients should go to which hospitals.

Goldstein said this position has been used twice before during the pandemic, and that hospitals and the Fire and Rescue Service have asked for it to be included in the fiscal year 2023 budget.

Given the recent staffing shortage, however, Goldstein said there was a need to reactivate the position, to assist hospitals and make sure the flow of patients is evenly distributed countywide. 

The Fire and Rescue Service will also request “volunteer partners to staff additional peak time transport units, adding additional transport capacity to the system” and prioritize “Advanced Life Support care delivery and firefighting water delivery across the County,” according to the news release.

Goldstein hopes that as more firefighters come off the list of being isolated due to COVID-19, staffing will get easier. He anticipates getting five to 10 people back each day — but in recent days, 10 to 12 people have been unable to work because of COVID-19 or another problem.

“It’s just been an extreme uptick. … After Thanksgiving has just expanded our number of people sick due to COVID,” Goldstein said. 

He said the entire coronavirus pandemic has been a challenge for firefighters, It’s been different than the H1N1 flu or other similar periods because of the duration of the pandemic, he said. 

“We have other modifications we could take to reduce our daily staffing need, but there’s not a lot of bend [in the system]. … While Fire and Rescue [employees] are an essential need, we’re not over excessively staffed. … We’re staffed to our core needs,” Goldstein said. 

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com 

Steve Bohnel

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com