This story was updated at 8:30 p.m. on Monday, March 16, 2020, with more information.
Chattanooga Fire Department Chief Phil Hyman confirmed three firefighters are in self-quarantine at home and a crew is in isolation after one of the crew members arrived to work with respiratory difficulty.
During a call on Friday, two firefighters came into contact with someone who had respiratory issues. As a result, they are being quarantined at home. They have not developed any COVID-19 symptoms so far, fire department spokeswoman Lindsey Rogers said, and therefore they have not been tested.
Then on Sunday, a firefighter who had already developed respiratory difficulty was sent home to self-quarantine, while his accompanying three-person crew has been isolated in the department's training center for observation.
"As a result, the training center has been shut down and access denied with the exception of the isolated firefighters," Hyman wrote in an email sent to his crews on Sunday. "This isolation will remain in effect till testing results can be evaluated."
Hyman told the Times Free Press that the symptomatic firefighter will be tested Tuesday for COVID-19.
If the coronavirus test comes back negative, the isolated firefighters will be sent back to the fire station. If positive, they will remain in isolation at the training center for the full 14-day period.
The isolated firefighters won't be tested unless they develop symptoms, Hyman said.
"With staffing already critical, these kind of avoidable mishaps need to be prevented at all costs," Hyman wrote in his email.
Staffing has always been a concern for the fire department, Hyman said Monday. "That's something that we deal with on a daily basis regardless of a pandemic."
To free up more personnel, the department has canceled all public engagements and training events, which has freed up about 25 to 28 personnel.
If staffing gets more critical, Hyman said, the department can bring in fire inspectors as well. And the department has the ability to reach out to the Tri-State Mutual Aid Association.
The association is a partnership of about 50 fire and rescue agencies across 13 counties in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.
While surrounding agencies are experiencing the same concerns, "It just forces us to manage resources a little bit more in depth if we have to," Hyman said.
The training center in which firefighters are being isolated can be used for more first responders who need to be isolated if necessary, he said.
"There are limitations to the number of folks that it can house, but it is an option," Hyman said.
It's equipped with resources to house firefighters during large-scale events, he said. Now the firefighters are limited to the gym, locker room and kitchen area.
In his email on Sunday, Hyman reminded his crews that, "Our citizens are relying on our service so I ask all of you to take this seriously till conditions change."
"We prepare for the worst and hope for the best," Hyman said Monday. "That's what we do naturally in our business, and that's exactly how we're treating this pandemic. I can't predict what will happen next, but we have to prepare for the worst and just hope for the best outcome."
The Chattanooga Police Department, Hamilton County EMS and the 911 Call Center have all said none of their employees are being sequestered.
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