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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."

While each first responder who has gotten ill has recovered, the stresses to the remaining work force pile on in a department that already has 28 firefighter vacancies and at any given time has roughly 20 out of work for injuries, time off or other leave.

The environment has left the department operating with 78 operations staff per shift, versus the fully staffed capacity of 130 and the regular staff of 104. Meanwhile, the number of fires is actually higher than usual, exacerbating the staffing strains.

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Photo contributed by Chattanooga Fire Department / Chattanooga firefighters wear masks during a "hotwash," which is an immediate after-action discussion of the department's response and operations, following a fatal fire on Sunflower Lane on June 30.

"We've had a lot of fires here lately, particularly in the summer heat. And to me that's where I see our folks taking a beating more than anything," Hyman said. "And not to mention all the other calls we run on, too. It's not just fires that we run on. Forty percent of our entire call volume is medical calls. And even with that, with medical calls, they're having to wear appropriate personal protective equipment in case they come in contact with a COVID patient. So it's really kind of changed our response and heightened our awareness when we deal with that stuff on the medical side."

Not only does the decrease in personnel add stress to those working, but it threatens their safety and pushes minimum federal requirements. According to Hyman, the department is now operating with three firefighters per truck, compared to the desired five, which makes the job more difficult, more dangerous and pushes Occupational Safety and Health Administration criteria.

"The reason we do it is for firefighter safety and federal law with OSHA requires us to ride with three. We have to have a two in, two out rule," Hyman explained. "If I sent two people into an immediately-dangerous-to-life-and-health environment, I have to have at least two to back them up. And that's why we like to keep our numbers high, because if we don't, then we have to send additional companies to fill that gap."

Further, Hyman explained, it's just impractical for some situations to be handled by three or fewer firefighters.

"If two people show up on the scene of a working house fire, one person has to be in charge and on person has to pump the truck. And that leaves nobody to pull the hand line to nobody to actually do the work," he explained. "And that's what that third person is there to do, to start making the fire attack or start making the search."

The department is not currently set to run a regular academy of new recruits, which would yield between 25 and 30 new firefighters and run around $1.8 million, due to the slim FY 2021 budget, which reflects roughly $8 million in projected lost revenue from the virus. Still, Hyman said the Chattanooga Fire Department is looking for creative ways to get more personnel to fulfill the needs of the city.

"We're trying to get everything that we can, but with a flat budget, I think we have to be prepared for the next handful of months that there's not going to be a large windfall of money," he said. "We're trying to work through that and work out ways we can hire individuals. Typically, through our academies, we like to hire anywhere from 25-30 and it takes six months to get through that process, so we're looking at ways to hire individuals, maybe at a smaller number to save cost, and hire folks who have experience."

When Hyman delivered a departmental report to city council on Tuesday, council members shared his concern about staffing, some pledging future support to get the department through the pandemic.

"So Chief, as you're going through that, the longer you put off an academy, it's that much longer before we can fill positions and that much more attrition and everything else, so the problem just continues to get worse and worse. So putting it off is not the right answer, I don't think, at all," Councilman Ken Smith said. "So if there's anything else, anything I can do and I hope my colleagues are willing to do, to help you out and make sure that happens, please make sure to let us know, Chief, how we can help."

Hyman said the department may be able to hire people with at least some first responder, medical or fire certifications to minimize training costs.

"That's a way I could shorten the academy pretty dramatically, by hiring individuals with previous experience," he said.

While the department has managed to keep response times around its average of 3 minutes per call, making very little practical difference to those around them, the toll of the pandemic, the deadly Easter tornado and a rising number of fires is wearing on the department's first responders.

"Morale is certainly suffering," he said. "Our folks, our men and women, will do the job that needs to be done when the bell hits. But being around a fire hall, and trying to get training done in the COVID environment, we've had an extremely, extremely difficult year with challenges that we have never had before. "

"Our folks are resilient when it comes to that, but at the end of the day, you do get kind of worn out," he said, reiterating his confidence in their abilities. "But it's just unfortunate that I can't give them everything that they need resource wise to make their job a little bit easier."

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

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