California fire department reeling after being hit by COVID-19

Posted at 11:06 PM, Jun 25, 2020

A California fire department has been rocked by COVID-19 in recent weeks, enduring the heartache happening in communities all across the country.

"They all had on the required PPE, personal protective equipment, the mask, the gloves, the goggles, but again we're not always going to get that exposure and that risk out 100 percent," said Patrick Russell, Fire Chief of Anaheim Fire and Rescue.

Chief Russell says 20 firefighters were quarantined, and seven tested positive for COVID-19. They believe the exposure happened on a call in May.

"This is by far the hardest thing I've ever had to do. I would say even professionally, from all my time being a firefighter. To see one of our brothers in the bed they have to be in when they're on a ventilator," said Rob Lester, a fire captain and President of the Anaheim Firefighters Association.

A 27-year veteran of the department, Captain Dave Baker is still fighting for his life on a ventilator. Lester says Baker is beloved beyond the department.

"He's probably the most iconic member of our fire department, the big guy in the Disney picture, shaking hands with Mickey Mouse," said Lester.

Baker posed for the Disney sketch in 1993 as a rookie. Printed on t-shirts and postcards, it was a tribute to all firefighters, and the only time Mickey is looking up at a human.

"We're people who go out and make a difference, help people. And we're helpless in this situation," said Lester.

Also still in the hospital, 19-year veteran Joe Aldecoa, who at one point was in the ICU with a 105-degree fever.

The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) is tracking members impacted by the virus; the newest numbers from the U.S. and Canada show more than 20,800 have reported being exposed.

The labor union advocates on behalf of fire departments, some of which are still struggling to afford enough personal protective gear.

And now, some states are requiring firefighters to help with COVID-19 testing in nursing homes, a job they may not have been trained to do before the pandemic. The IAFF is offering guidance on how departments can safely conduct testing.

"All firefighters, all of us around the world, keep us in your thoughts and prayers. And when you see us driving by, wave and give us a big smile, we'll wave back," said Lester.

He wants the community to know that despite the risk, they'll continue serving the community, answering every call.