HOLLAND, Mich. — As local hospitals fill up with people sick from COVID-19 and other illnesses, there’s growing concern among some West Michigan fire departments that it’s creating staffing issues among their stations that leave communities vulnerable in emergencies.
In a Facebook post, Holland’s firefighters union said last Friday the department twice found themselves with only three people to cover the entire city, while other personnel helped with out-of-town transports.
“I would say over the last two months this has been more of an issue,” said Holland Department of Public Safety Fire Captain Chris Tinney.
Tinney, in an interview with FOX 17, explained that firefighters/EMTs frequently help paramedics and provide critical care in the back of ambulances when they take patients to the hospital.
However, with so many facilities at or near capacity in recent weeks, those ambulances need to drive farther, which takes that manpower with them.
For example, instead of taking a patient to nearby Holland Hospital, Tinney said a firefighter was recently diverted to Zeeland Hospital, which is about 10 miles away.
Turnaround time for crews can be upwards of an hour according to Tinney, which he acknowledged can be a risk when every minute and person counts in an emergency.
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“That does take our firefighters out of the area for a bit, but again, it’s a commitment we’ve made to the community to get them the care at that time that they need,” said Tinney. “We try to minimize this and we think about it when we do it.”
It’s a trend felt in other parts of West Michigan, like Muskegon Heights.
“When our firefighters are tied up on multiple medicals…if a fire emergency comes in, we have to ask for resources from an outside city,” said Muskegon Heights Fire Chief Christopher Dean. “That delays that fire response.”
Dean and Tinney agree that COVID-19 exacerbated the problem, but said pre-pandemic trends, such as increased call volume and an EMS worker shortage, play a role too.
“Prioritize your emergency healthcare calls and response; prioritize going to the appropriate location for care,” said Dean.
Both hope personal responsibility in dialing 911 and legislative action on all levels of government eventually help the tax of resources.
In the meantime, they’ll continue to implement short-term fixes, like communicating between stations when there are staffing shortages or bringing in on-call firefighters.
“We’re adapting where we can, but again, a long-term focus on ‘How do we respond to that need through apparatus, personnel?’” said Tinney.