San Jose fire academy trains recruits to respond to COVID-19 outbreak
The San Jose Fire Department's academy is proceeding to help prepare future firefighters to respond to COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of the San Jose Fire Department)

Despite the deadly coronavirus infecting more than a dozen fire officials, the San Jose Fire Department has filled its latest training academy with nearly twice as many firefighter recruits to help the COVID-19 response — albeit with face masks and physical distancing.

The fire training academy, which began in late March, has 24 fire recruits and will soon fill a void in the department as first responders fight to contain the contagious coronavirus. As of Wednesday, the disease had killed 46 people and infected 1,380 more across the county.

“We are a people-based service,” Fire Chief Robert Sapien told San José Spotlight. “It takes human capital to staff our fire engines and fire trucks to keep our services going. As we looked out at the COVID pandemic and some of the potential timelines, we really didn’t see a short-term deferral as possible.”

So far, 15 personnel in the fire department have tested positive for the virus, the most of any fire department in the Bay Area, the Mercury News reported. While most are firefighters, some civilian staff are among the cases. Another 11 people are being monitored, officials said.

But the added recruits could also help ameliorate staffing shortages prior to coronavirus, Sapien said, which included 40 firefighter vacancies. Today, the fire department has about 700 firefighters.

In San Francisco, 45 firefighters graduated from their academy on Feb. 28, according to fire Lt. John Choy. They are now responding to fire and emergency medical calls amid the pandemic, where there are 622 cases and 9 deaths from COVID-19 as of Tuesday. But no San Francisco firefighters have contracted the virus.

Still, the San Francisco Fire Department does not plan to have another academy anytime soon.

The new San Jose fire recruits are trained as either emergency medical technicians or paramedics, Sapien said. In their 18-week program, they will follow the state Fire Marshal’s curriculum. However, Sapien called this specific class unique because of physical distancing measures to coincide with Santa Clara County’s public health orders.

Before entering San Jose fire stations each morning, firefighters and recruits also get their temperatures checked since fever is a symptom of COVID-19. Recruits are also cleaning throughout the day, Sapien added, and off-going shifts sanitize stations before new shifts arrive.

The San Jose Fire Department’s academy is proceeding to help prepare future firefighters to respond to COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of the San Jose Fire Department)

San Jose firefighters have had to change how they respond to emergency calls, too, with increased cases within the department.

Firefighters — often the first to respond in medical emergencies — now limit contact with patients before an ambulance arrives. The ones who do work with patients are now wearing full personal protective equipment, which includes masks, gowns and gloves. Limiting contact, Sapien says, helps reduce exposure and preserve PPE, which has been undersupplied throughout the U.S.

The fire chief expects there will be more positive cases of COVID-19 in Santa Clara County into the fall, in time for a new academy to begin serving San Jose.

While social distancing and other unusual measures make training new firefighters more difficult, Sapien says events like the pandemic build camaraderie.

A 30-year veteran of the fire department, he remembers serving as an academy training officer days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when 412 emergency workers died, including 343 firefighters and another 200 who died from health-related complications since the tragic attack.

“What we saw was a class very focused very early and very intent on being excellent,” he said. “I really feel like this class is starting to do the same. They know the community needs them.”

Contact Eduardo Cuevas at eduardomcuevas@gmail.com or follow @eduardomcuevas on Twitter.

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