Chattanooga Fire Department struggles with staffing amid COVID-19 exposure, budget

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Chattanooga Fire Chief Phil Hyman speaks with the Times Free Press in the Chattanooga Fire and Police Training Center Joe H. Knowles Building on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Chattanooga firefighters are wrestling with unprecedented obstacles as COVID-19 exposure and related funding changes limit staffing, with demand as high as ever.

Chattanooga Fire Department Chief Phil Hyman said the department has been struggling to meet minimum staffing requirements in light of a tight city budget and frequent sick leave for first responders exposed to COVID-19.

Hyman said 16 people in the department have tested positive for COVID-19 and roughly 80 have had to quarantine for at least some time due to potential exposure or symptoms.

"So we use a symptom-based strategy. So that's 72 hours without a fever-reducing medication and with improvements to the respiratory system," Hyman said of those who suspect exposure. "And if they test positive, they're going off for at least 10 days, and then they have to get a negative test to come back and they obviously can't have symptoms."