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COVID hits Kern County Fire Department hard as infections, injuries mount

The coronavirus pandemic has tested the limits of the Kern County Fire Department, as scores of employees have come down with the virus.

Already understaffed and strained from a “year round” fire season, the cash-strapped department is struggling to maintain operations through the latest COVID-19 surge.

“It’s just been a domino effect,” Fire Chief David Witt said in an interview with The Californian. “It’s been one thing after another to our fire department that has led us to now not being able to fully staff our stations.”

As of mid-week, KCFD had 34 people out for COVID-related issues. The majority have been infected with the virus itself, while others are in isolation and some need to take care of family members with the virus.

The pandemic has compounded staffing issues already present within the department. The chief said KCFD needed to unfund 30 positions at the beginning of the fiscal year in July to make ends meet within the budget.

To maintain service levels, the department has forced firefighters to work extra shifts, in an order known as a “force hire.”

Throughout 2020, KCFD issued 1,480 force hires compared to 338 in 2019. The increased workload has left its mark on the firefighters themselves. Over the last year, the department saw injury claims rise to 146 compared to 87 in 2019. As of Wednesday, 19 firefighters could not work because they were injured.

In addition, 35 people have left the department, either retiring or transferring to other municipalities.

“The strain overall is immense,” Witt said. “It’s more than it’s ever been in the history of the Kern County Fire Department.”

Fortunately, new infections appeared to have plateaued, according to the chief, and vaccines have begun to be distributed to the department. In the next month, KCFD hopes to vaccinate up to 250 of its 500-plus force.

The department is watching and waiting for another potential surge following Christmas and New Year’s, but the chief said he was optimistic the situation will improve in the future.

“Now more than ever, I want to thank our firefighters for working all the overtime that they did this year,” Witt said.

Conversely, the Bakersfield Fire Department has not been hit as hard from the pandemic. Although BFD struggled with an influx of cases in December, spokesman Michael Walkley said new infections had eased up over the last week and a half.

“It’s definitely not easy, it’s been challenging, but the members have done a great job,” he said.

Beginning two weeks before Christmas, Walkley said, the department was averaging seven or eight employees missing each shift due to COVID. Now the number has decreased to around one or two and sometimes zero.

“We have some really good protocols in place, and it looks like our members are doing a good job of policing themselves and taking care of business,” Walkley said.

The department has rarely resorted to force hires, with firefighters voluntarily working an extra shift when needed. BFD does not face the same budgetary pressures as KCFD. With the passage of the Public Safety and Vital Services Measure known as Measure N, the department was even able to add positions.

“Members are in good spirits. They’re battling through this,” Walkley continued. “Here we are, going through a rough pandemic, and it’s time to step up and serve our community, and we’re able to do that.”

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.