Texas paramedic says EMS unfairly told to leave fire station over COVID-19 concerns
Fire officials responded saying the decision was made because county EMS providers were not using the same level of PPE and protocols as fire personnel
By Leslee Bassman
AUSTIN-TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas — As first responders battle COVID-19, an Austin-Travis County EMS staffer and a Lake Travis Fire Rescue squad are trying to resolve an issue that arose between the departments over the weekend.
Paramedic Damon Fogley recently posted a blog stating that he was told to leave his fire station by the department's staff "simply because I'm an EMS provider."
In the post, Fogley alleged the relocation was discriminatory and made out of fear that he might spread COVID-19 to other first responders. He wrote in the post that neither he nor his partner have ever tested positive for the disease.
Fogley's unit, which includes his partner and an ambulance, was housed at Station 605 of Lake Travis Fire Rescue, also known as Travis County Emergency Services District No. 6, located in Steiner Ranch. The unit, known as a "demand unit," handles a peak demand for services at various times and may operate for 12 hours or other periods of time, LTFR Chief Robert Abbott said.
In early March, Austin-Travis County EMS asked the Lake Travis department to take in the unit "because of COVID concerns," and Abbott said the agency consented because it had space at its Steiner Ranch facility.
Although he agreed to the request, Abbott said he told EMS officials the unit "can't interfere with our operation."
"We had safety issues with some of the protocols they were using," he said of the demand unit. "Our Lake Travis employees addressed safety concerns to me through the chain (of command) that I had to take action on."
Specifically, Abbott said the unit wasn't using the same level of personal protective equipment when responding to incidents that his officers were using and were following different protocols than his department ascribed to as directed by the group's medical director.
"I made a decision to go ahead and take that unit out," he said, adding that he was planning to work with Austin-Travis County EMS to find a place to house the team.
Not only is LTFR limited on space, but, at the time, Abbott said the department was shifting its practices of transferring employees in and out of fire stations and limiting that protocol to lessen the possibility of spreading the virus through cross-contamination of firefighters from station to station.
"In this situation, with the pandemic, it could have led to our own firefighters exposing (them)selves to things (such as COVID-19)," he said.
The unit was moved on Saturday evening and housed elsewhere for a short time before occupying the Lake Travis department's headquarters on Pheasant Lane on Monday morning. The department staff is teleworking at this time and not at the office. Abbott said the Pheasant site was never designed to function as a station house, lacking recliners, beds and a working shower due to a current remodel in progress.
Fogley described the room he was housed in as a "warehouse."
EMS Chief of Staff Jasper Brown said several EMS units were moved to the Lakeway area and his department worked with Lake Travis to relocate the demand unit on Saturday evening. He said EMS hasn't moved furniture into the space since it's a temporary location.
According to Brown, Lakeway Mayor Sandy Cox is currently working with EMS officials to find another location to house the unit on a more permanent basis or offer a better temporary solution so staff "would have some of the accommodations they're used to and still have a good footprint for a response in the area." Several buildings in Lakeway are under consideration to house the unit, with the group's logistics chief touring available sites this afternoon, he said.
"That's our most important thing—keeping a unit in the area for a response," Brown said.
All of the agencies have worked well together and he said he doesn't think the actions taken by LTFR were "discriminatory."
"This is a short-term, stop-gap solution so they don't have to sit in a truck on the side of the road somewhere like many other EMS agencies around the country do," Brown said. "That's not how we like to treat our personnel."
With the spread of COVID-19, the Lake Travis Fire Fighters Association, or IAFF Local 4117, met with representatives from fire and EMS agencies in Washington state; New Rochelle, N. Y.; San Jose, Calif.; and New York City, said its president Braden Frame. Those experts advised area fire stations to limit their firefighters' risk of contracting the disease as well as "mitigate cross contamination, clean often, (and) limit physical interactions, especially within the stations," he said.
"I understand his concerns," Abbott said of Fogley. "But I don't think we're discriminating against EMS. We took action on something that we thought was a safety issue."
The Lake Travis department covers the area within the RM 620 and Texas 71 corridors, including Lake Travis; Apache Shores; Hudson Bend; Village of The Hills; Lake Pointe; Hamilton Pool Road; and the cities of Bee Cave and Lakeway.
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