Weslaco firefighters lob more safety concerns

Just a few days after the Weslaco Firefighters Association went public with concerns about the city’s handling of its COVID-19 response, the union has raised additional concerns related to the pandemic and the safety of those fighting on the front lines.

In a news release issued Friday, the union alleges the city has not provided firefighters or paramedics with sufficient training for responding to potential COVID-19 calls, nor did they take union concerns seriously until after those concerns were shared with local media via an initial statement April 14.

“New fire department protocols were not issued until after our concerns were made public. The public disclosure followed weeks of attempted communications with the fire chief,” the union’s Friday statement reads, in part.

Too, union leaders say first responders are having to reuse personal protective equipment, and that staffing special infectious disease response units is pulling manpower away from other critical assignments.

“The N-95 mask ‘stockpile’ referred to by the fire chief includes masks that are being reused, sometimes for weeks,” the statement reads. “We are seriously concerned about reuse of N-95 masks as this may cause cross contamination and puts firefighters and our patients at risk.”

Speaking via phone Friday, WFFA Vice President Carlos Hernandez said “guys are being ordered to reuse the masks” without having a protocol in place for how to do so safely.

“Some of the guys are taking them home, having to bring them every shift,” Hernandez said.

The allegation comes amid a pandemic-induced nationwide shortage of the 3M manufactured N95 respirator, which is capable of filtering out particles as small as 3 microns. It also comes just days after Weslaco officials issued a news release of their own, touting the city’s stockpile of some 2,000 N95 respirators and 500 surgical masks.

Over 1,000 of those N95 masks arrived at the department just last week, and an additional $6,000 – $7,000 worth are on order, Weslaco Fire Chief Antonio “Tony” Lopez said Sunday.

“We have plenty,” Lopez said. “We have PPE that … if we need to use, that’s what it’s for. We need to use it.”

But Lopez didn’t deny that first responders are being asked to consider reusing their masks during calls unrelated to COVID-19. “Say you went to a car accident … and you’re not dealing with anybody who’s COVID-19. Is that mask reusable if you’re on a shortage, a worldwide shortage? Probably so,” Lopez said.

“Right now, it’s up to the individual. So, if you came right now and said, ‘Hey, I need a mask.’ They’re not gonna withhold a mask from you,” the chief added a moment later.

Lopez stressed that all firetrucks and ambulances are stocked with proper PPE, as required by law, and that personnel can request additional equipment as necessary. For the N95 masks, which have become a precious resource, their distribution is managed by fire captains or a supply officer at each firehouse.

But that added layer of difficulty in obtaining masks, combined with concerns over the staffing of the department’s Infectious Disease Response Unit and its two associated ambulances, still leaves union leaders worried.

“Time is precious in our field. When you don’t have those resources there daily, that means a fire engine or an ambulance has to come from across town to respond to those emergencies,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez referred to how the IDRU team and equipment are deployed only to known or suspected COVID-19 calls, making them unavailable for more mundane service calls. He used his own experiences as an example, saying he responded to an EMS call last week that normally would have been fielded by downtown’s Station 2. Instead, he was dispatched from the north side station because the Station 2 ambulance is one of two retrofitted for infectious disease response.

Too, staffing those two ambulances pulls manpower away from regular assignments, Hernandez said. He and other union leaders hope city officials will consider bringing in extra personnel to man those units. “You leave the daily operations alone and you bring in the extra personnel to run those COVID-specific ambulances and the support vehicle,” Hernandez said.

But beefing up staffing numbers and reorganizing their deployment is something department leaders have already been doing, the fire chief said. “We have an extra three personnel that are on duty for the first 12 hours per day,” Lopez said. Additionally, 21-22 firefighters are on duty at any given time.

“Before the COVID response, we had a skeleton crew of 16,” Lopez said.

The department has accomplished that by cancelling vacation while the pandemic continues — a policy that has been implemented citywide, Lopez said. Too, city employees are no longer allowed to hold second jobs. “We had to make a stop to that and we’re revisiting that every two weeks,” Lopez said.

Earlier in the week, Weslaco City Manager Mike Perez was critical of the union for going to the media with their concerns rather than following the procedures outlined within the association’s collective bargaining agreement. “You have a contract, follow the contract,” Perez said Wednesday.

“No manager is perfect, but follow the process. Give us a chance to take a look at it and give us a chance to get it right,” he said.

Hernandez said the union has been trying to do just that — for weeks. “We have been trying to fix things internally,” he said. “We had a meeting with Tony, with the fire chief, and that’s where we brought up these concerns, but that meeting went nowhere.”

Meanwhile, the fire chief — who has been the primary target of the union’s concerns — is urging the union to keep speaking up and offering solutions. “We have a job to do and we need to do it together. So, if they can bring anything to the table… we need to work as a team,” Lopez said.