Chula Vista Fire Captain Andy Wilson walked out of Fire Station 1 Monday night after his eighth straight day on the job, but he didn't go home. Instead, he headed down the street about a mile to a hotel.
“Knowing that I could potentially take COVID-19 home to my house unknowingly and give it to my wife, my baby, my parents, it’s just not worth that risk to me,” Wilson said.
If the South Bay is a hot zone for coronavirus in San Diego County, Fire Station 1 is at the epicenter of the pandemic response. A recent national fire house survey ranked CVFD among the top 25 busiest fire departments in the country.
“I’ve never dealt with anything like this, even close to this pandemic,” Wilson said.
Wilson said his station used to average 12 to 13 calls a day. Now it's 15 to 20, and he said at least half of those calls are for COVID-19. In fact, just minutes after interviewing with NBC 7, Wilson was called out.
“It’s just depressing,” he said. “Seeing it again and again and again, and then seeing people not take it seriously.”
Wilson said firefighters aren't just seeing it, they're catching it.
The fire union said a dozen CVFD firefighters have tested positive for COVID-19.
“You know, it’s hard when you see people that you’re really close with being sick,” Wilson said. “It’s scary.”
The union also said one-third of the fire department has come into close contact with someone who was positive - meaning they've spent more than 15 minutes less than 6 feet away from a COVID-19 positive case. In some cases that contact is far beyond 15 minutes – it’s 24-hour shifts.
Wilson recently came into close contact with two people who tested positive, which is why he opted to stay in a hotel room instead of going home.
“Risking essentially the lives of our family members, loved ones at home, is my worst fear," Wilson said.
But even though Wilson didn't feel safe going home, the realities of a relentless pandemic have stretched the department thin, and Wilson must still report to work.
“It’s hard having a little girl at home I don’t get to see,” he said.
Earlier in the pandemic, the CVFD said firefighters were told to quarantine after coming into close contact with COVID-19. But with some firefighters injured, others now sick, there just isn't the manpower to spare.
“I don’t sleep much thinking about our folks and what they’re going through, to be quite honest with you,' Chula Vista Fire Battalion Chief Darrell Roberts said.
Roberts said Chula Vista firefighters must work, even if they've been in close contact with COVID-19, until they show symptoms or test positive.
“It’s a calculated risk,” Roberts said.
Compounding the problem, according to Roberts, is the fact that the pandemic hit right after one of the worst wildfire years in state history. Many firefighters in San Diego County came home after months of deployment to a new fight no one knew how to end.
“Our folks are tired,” Roberts said. “We have been working a tremendous amount of hours. Literally days on end. And then when you do get the day off, the question is: Do you feel comfortable enough to go home to your family?”
Roberts said there is some hope. More than half of the fire department have received the vaccine, and more plan to soon.
Approximately 150 firefighters make up the Chula Vista Fire Department.