Fire departments across the Ozarks dealing with staffing obstacles amid COVID calls and cases

Published: Jan. 26, 2022 at 7:56 PM CST
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EBENEZER, Mo. (KY3) - Some fire departments across the Ozarks are facing new challenges after already being short-staffed.

First responders are not immune to COVID-19 and other illnesses while on the job. The Ebenezer Fire Protection District had a bit of its own COVID surge last week. The district had to make some scheduling changes, and call in part-time firefighters to keep up on calls.

Only one Ebenezer firefighter got COVID at the onset of the pandemic. The fire district pushed through the pandemic, but things have looked a little different more than a year and a half later.

“Last week we did get hit with multiple COVID positives, fortunately, much minor cases, cold, slightly flu like symptoms,” Ebenezer Fire Protection District Chief Nelson Prewitt said.

Many fire departments respond to COVID calls on a daily basis, which can create a few challenges.

”Often if it’s one person and they’re positive, it’s everybody,” Chief Prewitt said.

That is why all sorts of protocols are in place.

”We follow certain guidelines, masks, gloves, and all that,” said Ebenezer Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Micah Latch. “And we try to limit how many people and equipment we send into those houses.”

Duty still calls regardless if anyone is sick.

”If it’s a severe situation, or you know, somebody needs even CPR, we’re all hands on deck and we’ll all dive in,” Prewitt said.

Exposures are still a very real possibility.

Battalion Chief Latch had COVID a week ago. He does not know for sure where he got it, but he knows illness can be a risk.

”I think that comes with the job too,” he said. “Serving the public, sometimes we have to put ourselves at risk to do that. And I think that’s what every firefighter here signed up to do is help the public even though sometimes we put ourselves in risk too.”

The fire district pushed along last week after moving people around, but Chief Prewitt said sickness definitely adds an additional barrier.

”Nationwide, even pre-COVID, there’s a shortage for volunteers and firefighters that are career as well,” he said.

Prewitt said the number of applicants has dwindled.

”At one point there was over 100 new firefighter positions in a short time in the area,” he said. “So that sucked that pool dry and it’s remained that way. It hasn’t really backfield.”

The district has full-time and part-time firefighters. It also takes several volunteers.

“We’ll put them through the training needed to work their way up to become career,” Prewitt said. “So that’s a possible way out there for folks graduating out of high school that don’t know really what they want to do, if they’re thinking about firefighting.”

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